CNN's highly anticipated town hall with Donald Trump on Wednesday night renewed longstanding questions about how to cover the former president without simply allowing him to peddle falsehoods on a national platform. Those questions are becoming more urgent as Trump's campaign recovers from last November's lackluster rollout of a new White House campaign.
Hosted by anchor Kaitlan Collins, a former White House reporter and a rising star at the network, the event came as Trump appeared to be consolidating his position as the GOP frontrunner. In the audience sat undecided voters from New Hampshire, a crucial early-primary state.
But there was little effort from the former president to demonstrate that he had been chastened by his loss in 2020 and was intent on running a more disciplined campaign in 2024.
Instead, he engaged in his usual lies about his loss to Biden while also mocking the judgment against him earlier this week in a Manhattan sexual assault civil suit brought by writer E. Jean Carroll. He claimed that he could end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours and suggested that the way to prevent school shootings was to arm teachers.
And for good measure, he insulted Collins, calling her a “nasty person.”
Questions about CNN’s judgment
Eight years after Trump launched his first presidential campaign, the question of how to cover the master of attention-getting remains unresolved. He is clearly not the sideshow some dismissed him as in 2015 (he did, after all, win the presidency in 2016), but in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, there are legitimate questions about how to properly cover a candidate routinely given to make incendiary statements, not to mention transparently false ones.
CNN chief executive Chris Licht has been intent on making the network more appealing to moderates and even conservatives during the Trump presidency, and Wednesday night's town hall was clearly an effort to appeal to voters who might otherwise have tuned in to Fox News.
But to some, simply letting Trump peddle falsehoods was a disservice to the political process. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said on Twitter that "CNN should be ashamed of themselves," while Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg called on Licht to resign.
Licht, for his part, is reportedly pleased.
Harsh reviews from news media
During his presidency, Trump attacked journalists as “enemies of the people” and promulgators of “fake news,” yet no public figure seeks media attention as avidly as he does. Accordingly, the media turned to Trump on Wednesday night, as they had so many times before. For the most part, they came away unimpressed by his performance.
USA Today columnist Rex Huppke called the town hall a "lie-a-palooza" and "a visceral display of disreputableness," writing, "CNN effectively gave America a primetime Trump rally with fewer people selling offensive T-shirts outside."
The Guardian similarly described the 70-minute special as "a mess of lies" which, they argued, was "utterly predictable."
Former police officer Michael Fanone, who tried to protect the Capitol as it was stormed by Trump supporters on Jan. 6 and later became an outspoken critic of the former president, lamented that Trump seemed, once again, to have gotten a free pass from the press.
"It's worse than I could have ever imagined. It's an absolute disaster. There's no way to fact-check this guy in real time. He's a volcano of bullshit," he told HuffPost.
Collins also received mixed reviews for her performance, with the Wrap noting that "Collins attempted to counter Trump's claims, clarifying that the election was not rigged, but the pushbacks were fairly tepid and largely went unremarked by the audience."
The Washington Post media desk also acknowledged that Collins "attempted to correct inaccurate claims made by former president Donald Trump about many topics — but she found her rebuttals falling on deaf ears."
Democrats were thrilled by Trump’s performance
President Biden’s top advisers were already preparing to run a campaign against MAGA Republicans, regardless of who the GOP nominee would be. And as in the 2022 midterms, they planned to highlight Republican efforts to curb reproductive rights and subvert democratic norms — and, more broadly, to push the country on an extremist course most Americans don’t support.
On those terms, Trump's town hall was a gift. "It's simple, folks," Biden wrote on Twitter. "Do you want four more years of that?"
DeSantis allies lash out
For several months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis led in polls of potential Republican candidates for the presidency, but he has lately struggled in trying to introduce himself to an audience beyond Florida and is now losing badly to Trump in virtually every survey of the prospective GOP field.
The expected DeSantis candidacy requires the support of Trump voters eager for a new MAGA flag-bearer, which means he has to woo the former president’s supporters without casting aspersions on the man he seeks to supplant.
Accordingly, most attacks on Trump have come from Never Back Down, a political committee supporting a soon-to-be-announced DeSantis run. On Wednesday night, Never Back Down released a statement that said the town hall was "over an hour of nonsense that proved Trump is stuck in the past."
A good evening for Trump? Trumpworld seems to think so
If most everyone panned Trump’s performance, the mood at the former president’s South Florida golf resort and post-presidential headquarters was decidedly upbeat.
"Advisers to Trump are thrilled at how this is going so far for him. They can't believe he is getting an hour on CNN with an audience that cheers his every line and laughs at his every joke," reported the New York Times.
Once again, everyone was talking about Trump. And for a man who craves attention the way fish crave water, that counts as a victory.