When CNN announced it would host a town hall meeting with Donald Trump, to be held in New Hampshire, the state that is seen as a bellwether for how well a candidate can do in a general election, people were justifiably stunned. CNN giving Trump an open mic? And why did Trump accept, given the hatred he held for the liberal network in all his days as president? What about the taunts and insults he had lobbed at their hosts and anchors? And did CNN forget that as president he had banned them from the press briefings? Donald Trump had branded CNN “fake news” and never granted any of its journalists an interview while president but now he was willing to grant them this huge event. Trump’s campaign said he was appearing on the network now to step outside a GOP comfort zone, justifiably anticipating that it would be a hostile setting with hard questions. Instead, the audience served up easy questions that repeatedly gave Trump an opportunity to congratulate himself and misrepresent facts.
But CNN has a new CEO, Chris Licht and it seems that he is widening their horizon. Or maybe he just thought that with the chaos reigning at Fox—having just settled the lawsuit against Dominion Voting Systems that cost them $897 million, and the subsequent ouster of Tucker Carlson, this was the moment to make a move to peel away some Fox loyalists and rescue CNN’s dwindling ratings.
They chose Kaitlan Collins as moderator. It was hailed as the biggest moment of her career—a make-or-break move for her. But there was also surprise at the decision to pick her as moderator over the bigger hitters like Dana Bash or Jake Tapper, who was on hand for the fact checking and commentary after the town hall had ended.
After all the surprise and anticipation, we learned that Trump is Trump, and he didn’t disappoint his adoring fans. For those who are not his fans, it was the same disheartening and mind-numbing performance that we recall having watched day after day while he was in the White House. He brought his A game, which consists of lying, bullying, and insulting women. Collins didn’t have a chance, she was repeatedly steamrolled by a man who has no respect for civil discourse, facts, or truth. And eventually he called her too a “nasty person” as he has called Hillary Clinton and Megyn Kelly.
It took less than a minute for Trump to air his first lie and to set the tone; this was going to be another opportunity to air his grievances and pander to Trump loyalists. In the very first question from Collins about why he should be elected again, he started almost immediately by repeating his lies about the 2020 presidential election and repeating his unfounded claims of election fraud. Trump called it a “rigged election” and a “shame” before Collins cut him off, correcting his statements and asking him to publicly acknowledge his loss to Biden. He did not; and returned to these points at various times during the hour.
When asked by Collins about the verdict against him in the E. Jean Carroll case, Trump said his poll numbers went up and repeated his statements that he didn’t know Carroll, though at least one photograph has surfaced of them together.
“I don’t know her. I never met her. I had no idea who she is.” He dismissed a question from Collins about whether it would impact his standing with female voters and in response, he launched into a recounting of Carroll’s claims in a mocking voice, drawing laughs and claps from the live audience. Collins tried to interrupt but Trump continued and called it “a fake story” and referred to Carroll as “a wack job.”
He doubled down when Collins asked him about the infamous “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without asking permission. Trump defended his comments, saying he had said women let him grab their genitals without permission because he was a star. “I can’t take that back because it happens to be true,” Trump said.
The issue of the Jan. 6 insurrection came up early, when Collins asked Trump if he regretted his actions on that day. The former president’s focus quickly became the size of the crowd he spoke to before some began marching on the Capitol. He reiterated that the election was “rigged.”
“They were there proud. They were there with love in their heart. That was unbelievable and it was a beautiful day,” Trump said. He has no regrets; in his mind it was a beautiful day for Donald Trump. But not for America.
Then of course, there were promises about accomplishments if he wins a second term: he would end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours, he would solve the immigration crisis, he would bring an end to inflation, and on and on. He offered no hints as to how he would achieve any of these miracles.
According to Rolling Stone, CNN insiders have deeply regretted their move to host the town hall. One called the evening “appalling,” lamenting that the network gave Trump “a huge platform to spew his lies.”
Another stated, that the town hall was “a fucking disgrace…1000 percent a mistake [to host Trump]. No one [at CNN] is happy.”
“Just brutal,” added one of the network’s primetime producers.
CNN defended Collins’ performance. She “exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist. She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”
Despite this full-throated defense, it’s doubtful that this is the way CNN was hoping it would go. They gained nothing in the process. Fox loyalists will still watch the primary debates on Fox, not CNN, and CNN loyal viewers now have a grievance against a network that served as the first venue of the Trump election campaign, allowing him to spread his toxic propaganda.
On the other hand, Trump’s team is ecstatic. Some close aides to the ex-president were even baffled that the night went that well for them, according to sources in and close to the campaign. “We want to thank CNN for their generous donation to President Trump’s campaign!” one Trump adviser said late on Wednesday.