CNN invited Donald Trump to lie on its airwaves for over an hour on Wednesday night. The evening was billed as a town hall, but played more like a campaign rally for the former president, who steamrolled and repeatedly mocked moderator Kaitlin Collins, pushing a torrent of misinformation about the 2020 election, the multiple investigations into his conduct, and pretty much everything else he commented on.
One CNN insider who spoke to Rolling Stone called the evening “appalling,” lamenting that the network gave Trump “a huge platform to spew his lies.”
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Collins tried her best to correct Trump as the spokesperson. And immediately after Trump went off-air, CNN anchor Jake Tapper led a parade of pundits and fact-checkers to counter his dissembling and pan his performance.
Nevertheless, the town hall was “a fucking disgrace,” in the words of another network insider. “1000 percent a mistake [to host Trump]. No one [at CNN] is happy.”
“Just brutal,” added one of the network’s primetime producers.
A CNN spokesperson defended the network’s decision to host Trump — and Collins, the host who tried to stop his steamroller of lies. Collins “exemplified what it means to become 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 position as he entered 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.”
But Team Trump didn’t seem to feel that the boss wasn’t holding to much of anything. Even before the conclusion of the town hall’s first hour, the reactions within Trump’s circle were universally joyous. Some close aides to the ex-president were almost baffled that 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.
“[Trump] should literally do this every night,” one operative working closely with the Trump 2024 team said about an hour into the live event. “Nightly CNN hits!”
For Trump’s political lieutenants, the evening served as a dose of vindication of his and his staff’s plans to heavily saturate the kinds of major media outlets that GOP rivals like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have largely avoided, people familiar with the plans say. “Part of the idea is to bury Ron [in the media], and to laugh at him for being so weak that he can’t even stand up to CNN,” another person close to Trump said. “To just completely swamp him.”
The strategy is similar to Trump’s past tactics — which long predate his presidency — of flooding the press and the tabloids with so much of his presence, even (and perhaps especially) in times of scandal or crisis.
“Control the agenda,” as sources with direct knowledge of Trump’s past directive put it.
Trump himself was certainly energized by the audience in New Hampshire, which CNN filled with his supporters. During one exchange in which Collins tried, and failed, to get him to take a side in the war in Ukraine — or at least to condemn Vladimir Putin — the crowd applauded his deflections. Collins ultimately moved on after the former president refused to give straight answers to any of her questions, instead pushing his well-worn talking points about the conflict.
“The audience was stacked with his voters,” lamented the same CNN insider who called the evening “appalling.”
The tone was set early, with Trump lying about the 2020 election results, and then simply lying some more when Collins tried to push back. When Collins asked Trump if he had any regrets about Jan. 6, 2021, Trump continued to spout election falsehoods and boasted about his crowd size. “A lot of the people here probably were there,” he said. “It was a beautiful day.”
The town hall event took place just a day after Trump was found liable for sexual battery and defamation in a civil case brought by author E. Jean Carroll. Trump attacked Carroll and mocked the allegation to Collins on Wednesday. “I have no idea who the hell she is,” Trump said. The audience burst out in laughter.
Carroll wasn’t the only woman Trump bashing. He took aim at Collins throughout the town hall, accusing her of having an “agenda” and talking over him throughout the event. “You are a nasty person, I’ll tell you,” Trump said as Collins was trying to get him to respond to a question about why he kept classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Again, the audience burst out in laughter.
“I thought she was great. Unflappable,” a CNN insider told Rolling Stone of Collins’ performance.
The town hall was soaked in controversy from the moment CNN announced it last week. Trump had not appeared on the network since 2016. Since that appearance, Trump has presided over one of the most racist and demagogic presidential administrations in recent memory and overseen a violent attempt to overthrow the democratic process while continuing to hawk the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. While Trump remains the clear frontrunner to land the Republican 2024 nomination, CNN treating Trump him like a respectable candidate has raised concerns that his past behavior is being swept under the rug in favor of primetime ratings.
“Putting him onstage, having him answer questions like a normal candidate who didn’t get people killed in the process of trying to end the democracy he’s trying to once again run, normalizes what Trump did,” former Capitol Police Officer Michael Fanone wrote in an op-ed for Rolling Stone. “It sends a message that attempting a coup is just part of the process; that the accepted election result is a choice; and that there are no consequences, in the media or in politics or anywhere else, for rejecting them.”
Fanone, a contributor at CNN since his retirement from law enforcement, wrote about his “countless conversations with its employees, producers, hosts, journalists, camera operators, etc.,” many of whom experienced professional and personal harassment at the hands of Trump and his supporters. Collins himself was a frequent protagonist in clashes between Trump and members of the media.
“In a recent trip to CNN’s Washington, DC, bureau, I sat silently in the green room as guests, anchors, and employees filtered through and clamored about how outrageous it was that CBS would give Marjorie Taylor Greene an interview on its prestigious 60 Minutes series. Good question? I hope my fellow CNN employees have the balls to raise those same questions with the network executives,” wrote Fanone.
Fanone isn’t alone. Adam Kinzinger, a CNN commentator and former Republican congressman, tweeted that the town hall was “an absolute joke” shortly after it ended. One CNN insider who spoke to Rolling Stone said they hope there is pushback for the decision to bring Trump on the air again. They added that they “have to assume” the move was the brainchild of new CEO Chris Licht, who has reportedly moved to bring in conservative viewers while flirting with right-wingers. The town hall on Wednesday may have brought in ratings, but it didn’t do so by putting out anything resembling truth, decency, or anything else legitimate journalistic entities trying to transmit to the public.
The final question Collins asked Trump was whether he would accept the results of the 2024 election. Trump brushed her off one last time.
“If it’s an honest election, I will,” he said.
“So it is not committed to accepting the results of the 2024 election or acknowledging what happened in 2020?”
Trump simply waved his hand at her. Once again, the audience laughed.
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