NEW YORK (AP) — CNN's Don Lemon did not back down despite criticism from President Donald Trump, twice labeling presidential remarks as racist while he was moderating Wednesday's Democratic debate.
Lemon, with partners Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, presided over a session with questions designed to highlight differences between the 10 candidates onstage, most of whom eagerly took the bait.
Tuesday night's debate wasn't a ratings triumph for CNN. The Nielsen company said just under 8.7 million people watched, a sharp drop from the 15.3 million who saw opening night of the first debate on NBC News last month.
Trump used Twitter on Wednesday to attack Lemon. After insulting Lemon's intelligence, the president said the CNN anchor had insinuated that he was a racist, "when in fact I am 'the least racist person in the world.'" Trump was apparently quoting himself.
Hours after the tweet was sent, Lemon asked Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet what he would do to bridge a racial divide that "has been stoked by the president's racist rhetoric."
In another question to former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Lemon referred to Trump's "racist tweets" about Baltimore. In an attack on Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings last weekend, Trump had referred to Cummings' Baltimore district as a "rodent infected mess."
It was even sharper terminology than Lemon had used the night before, when he said Trump "is pursuing an election strategy based in part on racial division." In another question, Lemon referred to "the president's bigotry."
LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD defended Lemon, who is gay, in a Wednesday tweet that said Trump's "continued attacks on the intelligence of prominent black Americans are abhorrent and telling."
The ratings drop for the first debate wasn't entirely unexpected, since the NBC News debate was the shown on both broadcast and cable networks and took place at a time fewer people were on vacation. Still, they led Trump to taunt CNN for "very low ratings."
Besides the television viewership, CNN said an average of 516,000 people watched the debate via digital stream.
CNN faces a stiffer challenge in matching NBC for the second night. A month ago, the second of two nights on NBC reached 18.1 million people.