“That’s not true, Mr. President, and you know that.”—CNN Donald Trump town hall moderator Kaitlan Collins.
“You are a nasty person.”—Trump to Collins, later.
It was worse than my worst nightmares.
CNN made a terrible, ratings-driven decision to host a New Hampshire town hall with disgraced former president Donald Trump Wednesday night—one day, as it happened, after he was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation. Even worse: choosing to do it in front of an audience of New Hampshire Republicans.
I have to assume that was a Trump condition for doing the event. If it wasn’t, everyone connected with that decision should be fired. But almost certainly won’t be.
Trump got a standing f’ing ovation when he came out, as well as at the end of the nightmarish political stunt. The town hall’s moderator, CNN’s 31-year-old rising star Kaitlan Collins, tried repeatedly to push back on Trump’s many, many lies, but he talked over and mocked her for all 60-something minutes. The Trump-besotted crowd regularly served as a laugh track for Trump’s lies and his insults. It was nauseating.
Collins was best on Trump’s voter fraud lies.
“Mr. President, there weren’t any fraudulent votes in Wisconsin,” she said at one point, as he tried to drown her out. Later: “There was no rigged election in the state of Georgia.” “The election was not rigged, Mr. President, you cannot be saying this all night long,” Collins insisted.
But he did.
Unforgivably, though, Collins allowed Trump to repeatedly claim, on abortion, that Democrats are in favor of abortion even after babies are born, “ripped out of the womb,” and stuck doggedly to her comparatively procedural questions about at which week of pregnancy he would support an abortion ban. She also clung to a relatively bloodless line of questioning about his deadly, racist immigration policies, merely hammering away (accurately) that he only constructed 52 feet of his border wall. In response, he lied more. There was nothing she could do.
Dressed intentionally or not in suffragist white, Collins became just another woman (verbally) assaulted by Trump. Great job, CNN CEO Chris Licht. Women across America salute you.
Although it was a bloodbath for CNN management, the grotesque spectacle provides thousands of clips for Democratic ads. Trump said he was “honored” to be “able to terminate Roe vs. Wade” (that’s not technically what happened, but whatever). He said he was “inclined to pardon many” of the violent January 6 rioters, saying “many of them are great people” (just like the Charlottesville, Va., neo-Nazis). He called the Capitol Police officer who shot insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, as she climbed through a window to assault House of Representative members, a “thug” (yes, the officer is Black).
On Wednesday, some Trump advisors were hand-wringing that he was “walking into a complete ambush,” given the verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit. But Trump’s people almost certainly negotiated the audience composition, and so no ambush occurred.
The CNN lead-in to the town hall featured a diverse panel of three Republicans—Hogan Gidley, former short-term Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, and (anti-Trump) GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson—plus Democrat Karen Finney. It was a disgrace. I have to admit, the panel that gathered after the embarrassment, along with anchors Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, seemed mostly horrified by what they saw. Like the rest of us.
But on that same panel, the network also let one of Trump’s few Black congressional supporters, Byron Donalds, throw verbal punches at Collins. Cooper tried to fact-check Donalds too, but Donalds has learned from The Donald to talk over everyone, and it mostly worked.
Once again, Trump took the opportunity to defame E. Jean Carroll, who just won the defamation suit against him. He said again that he doesn’t know who she is, yet he volunteered “her dog, or her cat, was named Vagina” (digression: Trump has never had any kind of pet). The crowd cheered his mockery of Carroll. I kept wondering, as I did earlier: Can Carroll sue CNN for defamation? Fox settled a defamation suit with Dominion Voting Systems, after it was proven it showcased Trump acolytes it knew were lying; CNN did the same.
I don’t think CNN’s bad decision here was at the same level of awful as Fox’s repeated support for Trump’s election fraud lies, after Joe Biden was declared the president-elect and ever since. But it was pretty awful. The network defended it by saying he’s currently the GOP front-runner. We’ll all have to grapple with that fact, in terms of our Trump coverage, in the year to come.
But CNN led the way in normalizing the twice-impeached, once-indicted, civilly found liable for sexual assault and defamation, coup-fomenting former president. Let’s watch what happens next.