Noticias Telemundo host José Díaz-Balart is one of five moderators for the first Democratic presidential primary debate, which will take place on Wednesday and Thursday. Díaz-Balart is a big name in the U.S. and Latin America—he anchors Telemundo’s Hispanic news program and its Sunday morning public affairs program and anchors NBC Nightly News on Saturdays—but he may be less well-known to some English-speaking viewers than his fellow moderators: NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, and MSNBC personality Rachel Maddow. For those who wish to become more familiar with his work before the debates, start with Díaz-Balart’s recent interview with President Donald Trump.
In an interview that aired last week, Trump repeated a number of falsehoods defending his immigration policies, and Díaz-Balart did not back down on challenging the president. The first of the more combative exchanges came just over a minute into their 20-minute interview, when Díaz-Balart stood firm against the president’s false assertion that he was popular among Latino voters.
Díaz-Balart: I want to talk to you about the immigrants themselves. You’ve been very tough on them. And one of the things that you did was—
Trump: You know my poll numbers with Hispanics went up 17 points. OK, explain that. I’ve been tough, and yet my poll numbers with Hispanics have gone way up.
Díaz-Balart: But the fact is that there is a percentage of Latinos—no doubt, there is up to 30 percent of the Latino population—who has supported you among the voters. That would make it 70 percent of those who don’t—
Trump: Well, right now it’s 50 percent.
Díaz-Balart: But let’s talk about the immigrants.
Trump: I know, but for a Republican, I’m at 50 percent, I went up 17 points. You know why? The Hispanics—
Díaz-Balart: I have not seen any poll that says, with all due respect, that you have 50 percent of the Latino support.
Trump: Well we’ll show it to you, we’ll show it to you, no, no, we’ll show it to you. I went up 17 points because I’m tough at the border. Because the Hispanics want toughness at the border. They don’t want people coming and taking their jobs. They don’t want criminals to come because they understand the border better than anybody.
Trump’s 50 percent statistic comes from a January Marist/NPR/PBS News poll that did show an approval rating of 50 percent among Latinos. But as CNN pointed out, that survey included just 153 Latinos, meaning its results had too wide a margin of error to be reliable. In every poll since then, Trump’s approval among Latinos has hovered in the low- to mid-20s. While some interviewers might be hesitant to squabble with Trump over poll numbers when the president has been known to lie about much more significant issues, Díaz-Balart appeared aware that he needed to establish Trump’s unpopularity among Latinos as the foundation for his later, more challenging questions about immigration.
Díaz-Balart then moved to pressing Trump on his zero-tolerance immigration policy, which, last summer, resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their families. Eventually bowing to public anger, Trump signed an executive order ending the family separations. Soon afterward, a federal judge ordered that the administration reunite the families within 30 days—a task the relevant agencies were unable to complete.
In the interview, Díaz-Balart did not allow the time since the policy’s official end to stop him from pressing Trump. The president protested Díaz-Balart’s questions by falsely claiming that the family separations were an Obama administration creation (separations were rare under the Obama administration and became a formalized policy under Trump).
Díaz-Balart: Thousands and thousands of children separated—
Trump: When I became president, President Obama had a separation policy, I didn’t have it, he had it. I brought the families together. I put them together. Just remember that I put them together.
Díaz-Balart: Twenty-eight hundred children were reunited with their parents in the last year. We don’t even know, the government doesn’t even know how many children are still not with their parents. They don’t know, which I find incredible.
Trump: Ready? Are you ready? Under the Obama plan—
Díaz-Balart: Sir, we’re talking about your plan.
Trump: No, we’re not, because I’m the one that put people together. They separated. I put them together.
Díaz-Balart: You did not. Twenty-eight hundred children were reunited with their parents in this last year after the zero-tolerance policy….
Trump: Because I put them together, that’s because I put them together….
Díaz-Balart: Under a court order, I may add, right?
Trump then admitted that he “hated to have” the family separations policy, which prompted Díaz-Balart to ask if he thought it had been a mistake.
Trump: What zero-tolerance means to me is we’re going to be tough on the border.
Díaz-Balart: That includes separating parents from children, if that’s what it takes?
Trump: No, no, I put them together, just remember that.
Having established that Trump was basing his response to the separations policy questions on an outright lie, Díaz-Balart then asked Trump about his announcement he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (the plan has been put on hold by the courts).
Díaz-Balart: You said the Dreamers would be treated with heart. What happened to that heart? The first thing you do is you essentially turn back DACA as an executive order.
Trump: The Democrats don’t want to make a deal. It’s not an executive order… I can’t get Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer to do anything for the Dreamers. They don’t care about the Dreamers.
Díaz-Balart: You revoked DACA.
Again, Díaz-Balart rejected the president’s forceful insistence that the blame for a Trump administration decision lay elsewhere. He also challenged Trump on his decision to end the Temporary Protected Status program that allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, and Nicaragua fleeing catastrophic conditions in their countries to remain in the U.S. “Do you have something against immigrants?” Díaz-Balart asked, finally addressing what many believe to be the racist motivation behind Trump’s immigration policies and fearmongering. (Trump, who said he “loves” immigrants, gave a rambling answer in which he bragged about “the lowest Hispanic unemployment rate in the history of the country.”)
At the end of the interview, Díaz-Balart returned to the topic of Latino support for Trump, hinting again at his unspoken thesis that Trump was failing—and actively harming—Latino voters, and deluding himself if he thought otherwise:
Díaz-Balart: Granted, a percentage definitely supports you, but there’s a percentage who fear your rhetoric, who fear what’s been going on at the border, who fear that you have said that you will be deporting millions of people.
Trump: They want me to do it, they’re here illegally.
Díaz-Balart: Mr. President, they do not.
Trump: They do, they do. You ready? They don’t want to lose their jobs, they want to keep their salaries, their wages up, and they don’t want crime. When people come through, you have MS13 coming through, Hispanics—
Díaz-Balart: But that’s not the majority, Mr. President.
Trump: But it’s a lot of people.
Díaz-Balart: It may be some.
Trump: If it’s one in 100, it’s too many.
Díaz-Balart: The mothers coming with children aren’t MS13.
Trump: It’s one in 100.
Díaz-Balart: The people who [are] raped in their town and have to leave aren’t MS13.
Trump: You’re right, I agree, but if it’s one in 100 it’s too many, and we’re taking them out of the country in the thousands, and the Hispanics see that these people, these horrible people, MS13 and other gang members, are being removed from our country.
Díaz-Balart: Those people are the first ones who want MS13 removed, but they do not want to see families separated at the border. They do not want to see peoples’ rights—they don’t want to see children in cages.
Trump: Obama built the cages.
Díaz-Balart won’t be moderating his first Democratic primary debate on Wednesday—in 2016, he and Todd led a town hall with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but that night saw few headline-making moments. Wednesday’s debate, which will involve a significantly larger number of candidates in a more inherently confrontational setting, will almost certainly be a more high-profile event. And with his confrontational Trump interview, Díaz-Balart has shown that he is not eager to let candidates peddle unchecked talking points.