Five key takeaways from CNN’s divisive town hall with Donald Trump

Trump calls Jan 6 a ‘beautiful day’ and repeats long-debunked claims about the 2020 election

John Bowden
Washington DC
Thursday 11 May 2023 09:26 BST
E Jean Carroll says she feels 'fantastic' after court victory against Trump

Former President Donald Trump made his first live CNN appearance since 2016 on Wednesday as he sat down with the network’s Kaitlan Collins in the early GOP primary state of New Hampshire.

What transpired over the nearly 90-minute broadcast was almost nostalgia-evoking as Collins was largely unable to make fact checks of the former president stick amid a seemingly unending cascade of lies put forward by an unrepentant Mr Trump.

Let’s take a look at exactly why Wednesday’s return to mainstream cable news by the former president was so significant, and why CNN was facing ridicule on all sides before the evening ended:

Trump steamrolls Collins

Kaitlan Collins made a serious attempt to make sure that the truth got as much airtime as Donald Trump’s falsehoods during her moderation of the event on Wednesday, but sometimes a serious attempt still falls flat.

That’s what happens when a journalist is set up to fail by their network; Collins, battling a raucous crowd that appeared to be almost exclusively in the former president’s corner, was often overshadowed by cheers and jeers as she attempted to shoehorn in last-second corrections after Mr Trump’s various spiels. She also found herself with no backup from the control room or CNN’s production team in general, who left her without any way to pull up examples of factual information, statements by Trump appointees, and other useful bits of media that would have greatly aided her fact-checking endeavors.

As a result, the town hall at many times resembled the first Joe Biden-Donald Trump debate of the 2020 cycle, when moderators were sharply criticised for allowing Mr Trump to constantly talk over his opponent. By the end, the CNN host had been labeled a “nasty person” by Mr Trump on her own network while his supporters roared their approval.

The production was roundly criticised by other journalists and by Democrats especially as the interview continued, with Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling the programme “irresponsible”.

Trump steamrolls the truth, too

There seemed to be no end to the whitewashing which Mr Trump engaged in Wednesday evening. He called the deadly January 6 attack a “beautiful day”, his supporters supposedly throwing themselves against police barricades and shields with “love” in their hearts. He repeated his long-debunked conspiracies about 2020, despite Collins’s reminder that he had failed to prove any of his claims in court (no mention by the CNN host that Mr Trump’s own lawyer had admitted to not having any evidence).

He even lied about supposedly issuing an order to deploy thousands of troops on January 6, an order his own defence chief later testified never came.

E Jean Carroll faces furious attacks and an accusation of racism from Trump

The former president made no secret of his displeasure regarding a New York jury’s decision this week to find him liable for sexual abuse in the case brought by author E Jean Carroll. He repeatedly denounced her as someone he had supposedly never met, while accusing her of calling her own husband a word with racist connotations.

Little of this was “fact-checked” by CNN; Collins instead asked him if he regretted not testifying in the trial himself. Mr Trump described Ms Carroll’s lawsuit as “election interference” — despite the election being more than a year away.

The Access Hollywood tape returns

In easily the most surreal moment of the night, Mr Trump gave perhaps his longest philosophical defence yet of his infamous “grab ‘em by the p****” comment.

That remark, which surfaced in the fall of 2016 just weeks before voters elected him to the White House for four years, was made during a conversation on the set of an Access Hollywood taping. It would go on to haunt Mr Trump long afterwards.

But on Wednesday, Mr Trump went into excruciating detail about that comment: He wasn’t talking about his own personal behaviour, he claimed, nor was he talking (supposedly) about non-consensual encounters. Instead, the former US president argued, he was merely making an observation about the power of money and how rich men use it to attract women, albeit in the crudest possible manner.

Whether that explanation was believable is another story entirely, but it was nonetheless remarkable to hear out loud.

Trump cheers default as debt ceiling deadline looms

The ex-president gave a hefty piece of ammunition to his furthest-right allies in the US House of Representatives as he talked about the economy on Wednesday. Asked by Collins about the GOP’s debt ceiling negotiation strategy on Capitol Hill, Mr Trump responded that Republicans may need to force the US to default on its loan obligations in order to rein in spending. And he made the bizarre prediction that such a decision may not have real negative effects, calling the possible economic catastrophe nothing but “psychological” problems.

"We have to start paying off debt ... I say to the Republicans out there — congressmen, senators — if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default, and I don’t believe they’re going to do a default because I think the Democrats will absolutely cave because you don’t want to have that happen, but it’s better than what we’re doing right now because we’re spending money like drunken sailors,” he told CNN.

Expect Republicans to hunker down and be more willing to risk passing the 1 June deadline after which the federal government may be unable to pay obligations to its creditors with the former president’s encouragement, knowing that their party enjoys only a slim majority in the House.

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