5 takeaways from Trump’s CNN smackdown
Donald Trump did a greatest-hits medley of his false election claims and Jan. 6 explanations. And the GOP-heavy crowd loved it.
If there’s such a thing as an even more unvarnished view of Donald Trump, Wednesday’s town hall-turned-circus on CNN was it.
Steamrolling his way through a made-for-primetime spectacle, Trump maintained his lie that the 2020 election was rigged, refused to pledge to accept the results of the 2024 election and called his interviewer a “nasty person.” And he had the crowd on his side for all of it, cheering his answers and laughing at his jokes.
Set in Manchester, N.H., the first primary state, the made-for-primetime event underscored Trump’s position as the “frontrunner” in the race, as moderator Kaitlan Collins called him in her introduction. And by the end, it was never more clear that Trump is still selling what a sizable portion of the GOP base craves.
Here are five takeaways from Trump’s — and the GOP’s — big night in New Hampshire:
Trump’s biggest liabilities never looked so small
The most significant thing about Trump’s town hall wasn’t anything he said about the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 riot at the capitol or the federal jury that found him liable for sexual battery.
It was that on all of those issues, a roomful of Republicans and independents who intend to vote in New Hampshire’s Republican primary was siding with him.
The crowd applauded, laughed and cheered as Trump discussed his decision making on Jan. 6, said he was “inclined” to pardon “many” of the defendants from that day, continued to call the 2020 election “rigged,” and suggested former Vice President Mike Pence should have done more to overturn the election.
There was laughter in the room when he belittled E. Jean Carroll, the former magazine advice columnist to whom a jury in Manhattan awarded $5 million in damages.
And in response to an audience question about whether he would stop using “polarizing” language about the last election being stolen, Trump declined to fully commit to doing so, saying he would continue to cast doubt on the 2024 election if he suspects fraud.
This wasn’t an audience of liberals flown in from the coast. CNN had reached out to the New Hampshire GOP ahead of the town hall and invited them, along with other groups in the state, to submit questions and attend the event, according to an email sent to the NHGOP that was obtained by POLITICO.
For Trump’s rivals, it was a foreboding scene. Here was the former president getting grilled on some of his biggest vulnerabilities, and if the room at St. Anselm College was any indication, it wasn’t hurting him at all.
It was a flashing red sign for the rest of the field that Trump will not only continue using the election-grievance rhetoric that has defined his public messaging the last two years — but that Republicans will likely reward him for it.
Trump rediscovers his foil
Entire political solar systems have been born, swelled and swallowed again since Trump last appeared as an interviewed subject on CNN, but the man himself has not changed.
On Wednesday — and on its own platform — Trump once again turned the network into a foil.
In an hour-plus-long confrontation with Collins, Trump called a reputable, mainstream reporter a “nasty person” and made dismissive comments that drew laughter from the audience. Trump refused to give direct answers to her questions while attempting to minimize Collins’ sharing of objective facts, telling the crowd she “doesn’t understand.”
Media observers — including on CNN — cried foul. But it was Trump’s show, and the setup on Wednesday could have made any casual observer believe Trump is already the GOP standard-bearer for 2024.
Hours before Trump stepped in front of the camera, CNN was already cutting to shots of an empty stage and previewing the appearance with commentators and chyrons — the type of coverage one would expect ahead of a debate.
It was Trump’s idea, according to one adviser, to take out sheets of paper with his Jan. 6 tweets printed out and show them to the crowd, a moment that received laughter and applause.
… and leaves the rest of the pack on the sidelines
Ron DeSantis was the only candidate Trump hit in the town hall, urging the Florida governor to think about his future, because it was, he said, “not looking good.”
Other than that, Trump’s top rival in the Republican primary, who has fallen significantly behind him in polling, was barely mentioned at all. As the forum was starting, a super PAC supporting DeSantis sent out two press releases — a statement lambasting Trump for participating in a CNN forum, and a polling analysis arguing Trump can’t win a general election.
By the town hall’s end, a spokesperson for the super PAC hit Trump, calling it “over an hour of nonsense that proved Trump is stuck in the past.”
But attempts by Trump’s rivals to keep themselves top of mind highlighted the hopeless situation they have always found themselves in as he steals the spotlight.
As Trump lapped up the room’s applause, Pence counter-programmed. If Trump’s motivation to subject himself to a CNN town hall was intended to throw an elbow at Fox News, his former No. 2 and potential primary rival swooped in for his leftovers, appearing with Sean Hannity in what was billed as a “must-see” interview.
A senior Pence adviser confirmed to POLITICO the booking was intentional. But it was as if it took place in a different political universe: Neither Hannity nor Pence made any mention of the town hall. And though he only came up briefly in the town hall itself — Trump refused to apologize to Pence for his actions on Jan. 6, saying he was never “in any danger” — Pence used the occasion to hit Joe Biden on his son Hunter’s laptop and echoed a congressional Republican investigation of the matter.
Meanwhile, the other Republicans in the field could do little else but tweet — and few even bothered.
When the town hall came to a close, Chris Christie, who had earlier taken out ads attacking Trump on Facebook, fired off a couple tweets about Trump being “Putin’s puppet.” Vivek Ramaswamy posted videos from the campaign trail. The others were silent during the 70-minute show. And when Trump’s rivals eventually did speak? It was all about Trump.
Afterward, both New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, frequent critics of Trump, went on CNN to take shots at his performance. Both said he looked “weak” and that he failed to give responses that would appeal to women and suburban voters the GOP needs to court.
After two years of Trump being de-platformed on major social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and his comments receiving much less airtime on cable networks, things suddenly seemed to be right back where they started. And to add insult to injury, Trump has suggested he might not show up to the first couple Republican debates this summer, a decision that would rob his opponents of a chance to take him on in front of a national audience.
Trump still has a general election problem
Trump’s struggles with suburban women aren’t going away anytime soon, and it’s hard to see his performance on Wednesday helping.
He joked as he discussed rape allegations raised against him by Carroll, who won a $5 million lawsuit this week after a jury determined Trump sexually abused and later defamed her. He doubled down on the comments he made in the infamous “Access Hollywood” video leak, insisting that it is a known fact — “for a million years” — that the wealthy and famous can have their way with women. And he called Collins, the female moderator, a “nasty person.”
But on the issue of abortion, a major liability for Republicans, Trump wasn’t so quick to brush aside the opinion of the undecided female vote. Pressed repeatedly by Collins about whether he would support some form of a national abortion ban — something some of his GOP rivals have conceded, under pressure by anti-abortion advocates, that they would do — Trump refused to agree.
He threw some bones to the anti-abortion camp, calling the Dobbs decision “an incredible thing for pro-life” and bragging about his role in the process. Trump said, without elaborating, that he would “negotiate” and “make a deal” that would be “satisfactory” for the movement.
But just two days after he met with one of the nation’s leading anti-abortion activists, Trump stopped short of any pledge to support the type of federal law that social conservatives have called for. It means that while taking a position more popular with the general electorate, Trump could alienate a faction of GOP primary voters who have made further limiting abortion rights their top issue.
And one top Democratic strategist said that Trump’s comments on abortion were a “home run” for Democrats, too. “Trump saying he’s proud and honored to overturn Roe? That clip is going to get played over and over.”
Get ready for a repeat of the chaos in 2024
As much as traditionalist Republicans may wish it would go away, Trump’s voter fraud complaints will remain a feature, not a bug, of his campaign. It will be a fault line throughout the primary, as he mused about pardoning a “large portion” of Jan. 6 rioters.
“I think it’s a shame what happened,” Trump said, implicitly responding to Pence and others who have said elections should be about the future. “I think it’s a very sad thing for our country. I think it’s a very sad thing frankly for the world, because if you look at what’s gotten to our country, our country has gone to hell.”
Even in the face of an independent Trump voter named Scott who asked him whether he would “suspend polarizing talk of election fraud” — speaking for normie Republicans everywhere — Trump would not relent.
“Yes,” he said, “unless I see election fraud.”