Joe Walsh and Bill Weld debate in New York City Tuesday.
Joe Walsh and Bill Weld debate in New York City Tuesday. Photograph: Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Things aren’t going well for Donald Trump right now. Hours after the president learned he was the subject of an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, Trump was also the subject of a remarkable barrage of attacks: from fellow Republicans taking part in a GOP presidential debate.
Two of his rivals for the Republican nomination – both are almost certain not to defeat Trump – took to the stage to decry the commander-in-chief as a “child”, a “dictator”, a “horrible human being”, and much more besides.
There was at least some good news for Trump: one of the candidates said he would not sentence the president to death.
For all the tough talk, Tuesday’s bellicose event was likely the least of Trump’s worries. While the Democratic presidential debates have been a grand spectacle, with millions of people watching the candidates duke it out in grand theaters and looming convention centers, the GOP debate was less of an extravaganza.
Half of the four Republican candidates didn’t turn up, and only 50 people came out to watch. The debate was live-streamed on Facebook, where an average of 900 people tuned in through the night.
And where the Democratic debates drew hundreds of reporters from around the globe, just 12 journalists came to observe the GOP tête-à-tête, held at Business Insider’s office in downtown Manhattan. Three of the 12 were students, working on a university project.
The no-show by Donald Trump (Business Insider said the president “did not respond” to their invite) and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (“declined due to scheduling”), left just two candidates to debate each other, in a small studio in the corner of Business Insider’s office.
Those two were former Illinois congressman and rightwing radio host Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. But rather than debate each other, the night turned into a steady stream of full-throated attacks on Trump, who Democrats had hours earlier said was the subject of an impeachment inquiry.
“Let’s not mince words,” Walsh said, early on. “Donald Trump is a horrible human being.”
That set the tone, as both Walsh and Weld at times seemed determined to outdo each other in their critique of the president.
Joe Walsh and Bill Weld respond to questions from members of the media.
 Joe Walsh and Bill Weld respond to questions from members of the media. Photograph: Julius Constantine Motal/AP
Weld described Trump as a “megalomanic”, and a “malignant narcissist”. Trump is “filled with fear, filled with hatred”, Weld continued, and has “profound autocratic tendencies”.
“Trump is just a demagogue,” Walsh countered, later adding: “He said he was going to drain the swamp. He is the swamp. He is the most corrupt president we’ve had in the history of this country.”
The pile-on got so ferocious that at one point Walsh felt the need to clarify something.
“I don’t want Trump hung for treason. I just want him impeached,” the former congressman said.
The debate followed a traditional format, and in between the Trump attacks both Walsh and Weld were posed questions on serious issues.
The climate crisis, Iran, the automatization of traditional blue collar jobs all came up. Walsh and Weld meandered through some talking points. Both believed coal will phase itself out, both thought Trump had been irresponsible on Iran. Weld said he would offer government funding for manufacturing workers who lose their jobs.
Walsh’s common theme was for less partisanship, for Republicans and Democrats to work on solutions together. He repeatedly suggested the need for people of different backgrounds to engage in “dialogue”. Walsh even offered an example.
“I do a podcast back home with a black guy from Illinois, it’s called Uncomfortable Conversations,” he said.
“He’s the black guy, I’m the white guy.”
It all sounded very noble – but in his criticism of Trump’s racism, bigotry, and small-mindedness Walsh rather glossed over his own track record of engaging in all three.
As a congressman, and later as a shock jock radio host, Walsh repeatedly engaged in racism and Islamophobia. He pushed the birther conspiracy theory – the false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the US – and as recently as 2017 Walsh was claiming, wrongly, that Obama was Muslim.
“I wouldn’t call myself a racist,” Walsh told MSNBC in August. “[But] I’ve said racist things on Twitter.”
In the “spin room” following the debate, Walsh continued his criticism of Trump, saying the president is a “bully and a coward”.
When the Guardian asked Walsh if he is a bully and a coward, given his past racism, the congressman disagreed.
“No, I classify myself as somebody who believes in this country, who wants this country to come together and that’s why I’ve been so outspoken,” Walsh said.
When the Guardian followed up by asking Walsh if he was a coward when he was peddling Islamophobia and conspiracy theories, the former congressman became visibly upset.
“Never been a bully or a coward. I say what I believe all the time,” Walsh said, thrusting a finger in the Guardian’s direction.
Walsh then denied that he had suggested Obama was born overseas, before almost immediately accepting that he had suggested Obama was born overseas. “I was wrong to say that and I’ve apologized for that,” the former congressman said.
Quite what difference Walsh’s historic racism will make is unclear. And quite what purpose the debate served is anyone’s guess.
Trump may repulse sections of American voters – 52.1% disapprove of the job he is doing – but the president’s support among his own party is robust. According to Gallup, 91% of Republicans approve of Trump.
That makes it quite a tall order for anyone trying to convince Republicans to ditch the president. The fact that Business Insider’s Facebook livestream received just 20,000 views is unlikely to change much.
Embroiled in an impeachment inquiry, the president gave no indication that he was among those watching. If he was, at least Trump could cling to that one bit of good news: should it come to it, former congressman Joe Walsh won’t have him hanged.


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