In Republican debate, Trump faces Tribble master

September 15, 2015

The most-awaited showdown at Wednesday’s Republican debate could be between Donald Trump and the constitutional law professor who has challenged the reality TV star turned front-runner’s knowledge of world affairs, moderator Hugh Hewitt.

Hewitt, a former Nixon aide, shot into the presidential campaign spotlight earlier this month, when he put Trump on the spot, asking him to identify the leaders of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front and Islamic State as part of his syndicated radio show.


The question stumped Trump, who later turned on Hewitt, calling him a “third-rate radio announcer” and a practioner of “gotcha” journalism.

Hewitt says the insults have not changed his approach to questions for the 10 candidates who will join Trump at the second Republican debate set for the Reagan Library outside Los Angeles on Wednesday.

“I have three teenagers to whom I’ve denied keys to the car,” he told Reuters. “So I’ve heard much worse than that.”

Hewitt, author of the book “The Queen: The Epic Ambition of Hillary Clinton and the Coming of a Second Clinton Era,” has said he hopes to elicit responses that show how each candidate is equipped to beat Clinton, the leading Democratic contender.

People who know Hewitt expect him to hew to the approach he has established while building a following of about 1 million listeners for his 15-year-old show, which he bills as “National Public Radio for conservatives.”

Fans of Hewitt’s go-softly approach call themselves Tribbles, from the alien life form on the TV series “Star Trek” that seem soft and cuddly but quickly become dangerous.

“He’s going to ask the questions that need to be asked,” said Gary Wolensky, a partner at Arent Fox, the law firm where Hewitt is also a partner. “Anyone who thinks that they’re gotcha questions isn’t prepared.”

“From a college dorm room to a dinner party conversation, it’s always respectful,” says Mark Gearan, a onetime aide to former President Bill Clinton who was Hewitt’s roommate at Harvard in the 1970s and remains his close friend despite opposing political views.

In addition to his work on his radio show, Hewitt works as an environmental lawyer and teaches constitutional law at Chapman University near Los Angeles.

He is famed for asking guests on his radio show whether  Alger Hiss, the American diplomat, was a Soviet spy – a polarizing question of debate in the late 1940s and 1950s that helped launch Nixon’s career.

Hewitt says how guests answer show how closely they know U.S. history and how seriously they take questions of espionage. He is also known for asking interviewees whether they have read “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright’s history of Al Qaeda.

In preparing topics for debate questions, Hewitt said he has ruled out one area as too wonky for prime time: a discussion of the nuclear powered submarines known as the Ohio class.

“It’s too confusing, inside baseball,” Hewitt told Reuters on Monday. “It takes way too long to explain.”


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