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Impossible task or journalism fail? Kaitlan Collins, CNN’s rising star who faced Trump and lost

31-year-old journalist was once banned from White House after clashing with Donald Trump, Oliver O’Connell reports

Thursday 11 May 2023 23:11 BST
Media CNN Trump
Media CNN Trump (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A journalist who was once banned from a White House event for asking awkward questions about Vladimir Putin has moderated an event featuring a man facing legal jeopardy who lied about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, in a town hall aired on the cable news network he blamed for publishing fake news.

We’re talking about CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins and Donald Trump, who of course wants to be president once again, in his first time back on the news network he has spent years disparaging.

Roundup of all the outrageous things Trump said during CNN's town hall

On Wednesday night, the pair broadcast from a New Hampshire liberal arts college, where Mr Trump faced questions from Collins and an audience of 400 Republican and centrist voters during primetime on CNN.

Collins became known to most in her previous role as CNN’s White House correspondent. She delivered breaking news from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a commanding, confident tone throughout the Trump presidency, fast becoming a familiar face onscreen and known as a political authority.

Born in Alabama to a family she has previously described as “apolitical”, Collins graduated from Alabama University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, moving into the field shortly afterwards.

After spending two years working on the entertainment desk of The Daily Caller, the outlet founded by Tucker Carlson in 2010, Collins moved over to become the website’s White House correspondent, having also covered the 2016 election for the outlet.

“The day [Mr Trump] was inaugurated was my first day covering the White House, and it was obviously an adventure that started that day,” she said in an interview with In Style magazine. “We had no idea what was ahead of us.”

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins during a live shot in front of the White House (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

In 2017, she joined CNN’s politics team, becoming their White House correspondent – a role that saw her clash with then-president Trump and his press secretaries on multiple occasions.

Indeed, one such occasion in 2018 saw her barred from a White House press event after asking supposedly “inappropriate” questions about topics including Russian president Vladimir Putin during Mr Trump’s meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

“They said, ‘You are dis-invited from the press availability in the Rose Garden today,’” Collins told CNN at the time. “They said that the questions I asked were inappropriate for that venue. And they said I was shouting.”

Her line of questioning often didn’t hit well with the Trump White House, who unofficially declared war on CNN during Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign and White House term, and she was once described by then-press secretary Kayleigh McEnany as an “activist”.

Yet for all her “inappropriate” questions and CNN affiliation, Collins appears to have escaped the former president’s scathing online attacks that many of her colleagues have been subject to – suggesting she is far better placed than others to take point at the town hall.

Indeed, she is thought to have been offered the role thanks in large part to her experience interviewing the former president.

Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins attend the 2023 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner (Getty Images)

“He wants to intimidate and bully [the press] so you don’t ask him what he doesn’t want to get asked about. You have to remember to focus on the question and get an answer. Being banned by him really prepared me for that,” she told In Style regarding previous interviews with Mr Trump.

More recently, in September 2022, Collins moved over to host CNN This Morning with Don Lemon and Poppy Harlow as part of a major shake-up of the network’s schedule by incoming CEO Chris Licht.

The transition was far from smooth. Lemon parted ways with CNN in April amid a furore over sexist comments on air, but not before he had reportedly screamed at Collins off-air, leaving her in tears.

Don Lemon reportedly shouted at Kaitlan Collins off-air. (Getty Images for CNN)

There may be more big changes ahead for Collins as just hours before the New Hampshire town hall, Dyland Byers of Puck News reported that Licht plans to offer Collins a new contract to serve as the host of the network’s 9pm primetime hour.

The move could be announced as early as next week as CNN continues its pivot towards a more centrist posture.

“Kaitlan’s offer is not contingent on her performance at tonight’s town hall, but, given the Trump X-factor, those 90 minutes have the potential to modify, accelerate, or stifle the arc of her career,” Byers said. “At the very least, her performance tonight will set the tone for a new Collins era at CNN, which, barring any f***-ups, will run at least through the 2024 presidential election.”

There is always pressure on town hall moderators to keep things on course as there are many moving parts to such a format. In this case, the subject answering questions — Mr Trump — has just been found liable for sexual abuse and faces a multitude of other legal woes and investigations ranging from alleged financial irregularities and election interference to his role in the events surrounding the Capitol riot on 6 January 2021.

Donald Trump and Kaitlan Collins face-off at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire (CNN)

As a journalist on the rise, Collins has had to deal with controversy and challenging situations before during her time at CNN. However, Wednesday’s town hall — which generated a significant backlash over whether it’s appropriate to platform Mr Trump — was perhaps her biggest test to date and something of a potential crossroads for the network, her career, and the Oval Office prospects of Mr Trump.

Regarding the pressure she was under ahead of the broadcast, one Washington insider said: “Kaitlan has big brass ones, she should do a good job.”

On Wednesday night, Collins had an impossible task of trying to push back against a tsunami of falsehoods as Mr Trump steamrolled over her fact checks and objections, and refused to answer some questions directly as the audience cheered and laughed with him.

In an especially combative moment regarding why he wouldn’t return classified material to the government, he called her a “nasty person”.

She remained unfazed and continued to press him on the matter and rounded out the town hall in a more interrogative way than she began, asking about Mr Trump’s interference in the 2020 election in Georgia, and whether he would accept the result of the 2024 election.

There were earlier moments in which Twitter users howled at the lack of any pushback from Collins, including one completely false statement from Trump about abortion in the ninth month of pregnancy or even after birth.

Collins had strong moments, at one point forcefully challenging Mr Trump: “The election was not rigged, Mr President. You cannot keep saying that all night long.”

Much of the criticism was less about Collins’ performance and more about using a format that makes it extremely difficult to fact-check in real-time, as well as having an overly friendly audience. The overall decision to offer Mr Trump airtime to spout disinformation has been the main point of anger.

It remains to be seen how or whether Wednesday’s broadcast will impact Collins professionally. Reporters who know her from her time in Washington tweeted their support and lauded her journalistic abilities, and as Byers wrote, her prospects are not contingent on her performance.

Most fury is directed at CNN which has been condemned as “shameful” for allowing the “disastrous” broadcast to go ahead and give Mr Trump a platform from which to spread falsehoods.

Justin Baragona of The Daily Beast reported that a CNN on-air personality told him: “It is so bad. I was cautiously optimistic despite the criticism. It is awful. It’s a Trump infomercial. We’re going to get crushed.”

Podcaster and author Wajahat Ali tweeted: “Kaitlan Collins was placed in an impossible situation by CNN leadership. She did well considering the circumstances. But set up to fail. Shameful stuff by Licht and Zaslav.”

Earlier, in response to the “nasty person” barb from Mr Trump, Ali wrote: “Congrats, Chris Licht and CNN leadership. Bravo. What a way to treat your employees.”

Matthew Gertz of Media Matters for America wrote: “The venue for CNN's Trump town hall will be ‘filled with about 400 voters who are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents.’ I've never seen a network try this hard to get their own anchor booed live on their own airwaves.”

A CNN spokesperson provided the following statement to The Independent: “Kaitlan Collins 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. That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”

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