CNN’s own employees are disparaging the Trump town hall

Employees inside the company are slamming the network for giving Trump a platform to spout false claims on a multitude of issues.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is introduced during the CNN presidential debate.

CNN employees are lambasting the network for its hour-long town hall Wednesday with former President Donald Trump, where he continued to push false claims about the 2020 election and defended his actions on Jan. 6.

“It was a complete disaster,” one CNN employee told POLITICO Playbook, arguing that the format — specifically, stacking the audience with Trump supporters who cheered his lies — was a “strategic error.”

“It made it seem like CNN was endorsing that behavior,” said the employee, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on company matters. “Incredibly disappointing.”

CNN did not respond to requests for comment from Playbook about whether they regretted giving Trump a platform — nor did they answer questions about whether Trump or his team had a say in selecting audience participants.

CNN CEO Chris Licht, in an internal call with employees Thursday morning, defended the decision to host the town hall and congratulated moderator Kaitlan Collins for “a masterful performance.”

“I am aware that there [have] been people with opinions slash backlash, and that is absolutely expected,” Licht said on the call, a recording of which was obtained by Playbook. “And I will say this as clearly as I possibly can: You do not have to like the former president’s answers, but you can’t say that we didn’t get them. Kaitlan pressed him again and again and made news — made a lot of news.

He added that “there is so much that we learned last night about what a second Trump presidency would look like, that that is incredibly important for the country to hear. That is our job, to get those answers and to hold them accountable in a way that no news organization has done in literally years.

“We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and it will continue to be messy and tricky,” Licht said. “But it’s our job, and we’re going to do it fairly, toughly and aggressively, as Kaitlan did last night.”

But the criticism was fierce.

CNN’s own media reporter, Oliver Darcy, wrote in the network’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter Wednesday night that the town hall made it feel like it was “2016 all over again.”

“It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” Darcy wrote. He listed the falsehoods Trump repeated yet again during the town hall and added, “And CNN aired it all. On and on it went. It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage.

“And Collins was put in an uncomfortable position,” he wrote, “given the town hall was conducted in front of a Republican audience that applauded Trump, giving a sense of unintended endorsement to his shameful antics.”

Brian Stelter, former chief media correspondent for CNN, said on Twitter that “many CNN staffers appreciate what @oliverdarcy wrote overnight, that’s for sure.”

CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper took note of how the town hall turned out on air Wednesday evening.

“He called a Black law enforcement officer a thug. He said people here in Washington, D.C., and Chinatown don’t speak English. He attacked Kaitlan [Collins] as a nasty woman ... he made fun of [E. Jean Carroll’s] sexual assault and many in the audience laughed,” Tapper said to Cooper.

“And applauded,” Cooper added.

On Thursday evening, Cooper acknowledged the criticism on his primetime show.

“Many of you have expressed deep anger and disappointment,” Cooper said. “And I understand the anger about that, giving him the audience, the time. I get that. But this is what also get. The man you were so disturbed to see and hear from last night, that man is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president.”

“You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again,” he added. “But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite.”

Michael Fanone, a CNN contributor and former police officer who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, criticized CNN for the town hall before the event in a Rolling Stone commentary titled “CNN is hosting a town hall for a guy who tried to get me killed.”

“I don’t believe for one second that this is about journalistic integrity. It’s about ratings and money,” Fanone wrote. “Sometimes things are exactly as they appear, and this appears to be an attempt by a major media outlet struggling with its ratings to attract disenfranchised viewers.”

Fanone told HuffPost after the town hall that he was “appalled” by what he saw and that it was “an absolute disaster.”

“There’s no way to fact-check this guy in real time. He’s a volcano of bullshit,” Fanone told HuffPost.