By JILL COLVIN (Associated Press)
Former President Donald Trump was scheduled to appear at a high-stakes CNN town hall Wednesday and answer questions from a moderator and voters, just a day after a civil jury found him guilty of sexually assaulting a woman nearly three decades ago .
The prime-time forum in New Hampshire was already expected to be high-profile when it was publicly announced last week, bringing together a network and a candidate that have long battled it out. But the stakes were raised considerably on Tuesday after New York jurors found that Trump sexually abused and defamed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, although they rejected her claim that he raped her.
The jury awarded him $5 million in damages. Trump said the decision was “A disgrace” and vowed to appeal.
While the verdict in the civil suit does not carry criminal penalties, it does reignite attention to the myriad investigations facing Trump, who was indicted in New York in March over hush money payments made to women who accused him of sexual encounters. Trump also faces investigations in Georgia and Washington for his alleged interference in the 2020 election and his handling of secret documents and potential obstruction of justice.
The verdict also puts a spotlight on questions about Trump’s treatment of women over the years, which he will likely have to field from CNN host Kaitlan Collins and the public. Carroll is one of more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual assault or harassment over the years; Trump has denied the allegations.
Trump has generally not reacted well when pressed on stage about his behavior toward women, most notably during the first Republican presidential debate in 2015, when he sparred with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. He later said that “blood was coming out of her everywhere” when he questioned him.
Trump has a much more contentious relationship with CNN than he did with Fox at the time. Trump called CNN “fake news” and fought Collins. She was once kicked out of a Rose Garden event after Trump’s team took offense to her shouted questions at a previous Oval Office availability.
However, Trump’s team saw the invitation from CNN as an opportunity to connect with a wider range of voters than those who typically tune in to the conservative points they favor.
“President Trump has been battle-tested and is a proven winner. He doesn’t shy away from anything and faces them head on,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said.
The appearance will also serve as another contrast to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a top rival to Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and is expected to launch his campaign in the coming weeks. DeSantis has taken a sheltered media approach, largely avoiding questions from the mainstream press while embracing Fox News, which was once a loyal Trump cheerleader but is now often vilified by the former president.
Trump’s campaign has turned to new channels, including popular conservative podcasts and videos made for social media, which often garner hundreds of thousands of views. His team also invited reporters from a variety of outlets aboard his plane and arranged unannounced stops at local restaurants and other locations to show him interacting with fans, unlike the less charismatic DeSantis.
It remains unclear how or if Tuesday’s verdict will have any impact on the race. Trump’s indictment in New York only seemed to improve his standing in the Moldovan mayor’s race, and his campaign was boosted by the verdict.
Trump’s rivals weighed in on the verdict, some hitting him harder than others.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the allegations “another example of Donald Trump’s indefensible behavior.” Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy came to Trump’s defense and said he doubted a case would have been brought if the defendant had been someone other than Trump.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former ally now weighing a run as Trump’s antagonist, called Trump’s insistence that he had no idea who Carroll was “ridiculous.”
“This type of conduct is unacceptable for someone we call a leader,” Christie told Fox News radio’s Brian Kilmeade. “Do I think this is a silver bullet that ends Donald Trump’s candidacy? Not. I just think it’s an added weight of evidence that people will look at.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to launch a campaign in the coming weeks, told NBC that he doesn’t think voters will pay much attention to the verdict.
“It’s just another story, focusing on my former running mate, which I know is a great fascination for members of the national media, but I just don’t think that’s where the American people are focused,” Pence said . He said he “never heard or witnessed such behavior” while serving under Trump.
CNN’s town hall, the first major televised event of the 2024 presidential campaign, has already drawn suspicions from both sides of the political divide.
Democrats have questioned whether a man who continues to spread lies about his 2020 election loss — lies that sparked a Capitol riot — should be given a prime-time platform. Conservatives questioned why Trump would appear on a network he has continually disparaged and potentially give him a ratings boost.
“They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse!!!” Trump wrote on his social media platform, Truth Social. “It could be the start of a vibrant new CNN without fake news, or it could turn into a disaster for everyone, including me. Let’s see what happens? Wednesday night at 8:00!!!”
He repeated the message in a video on Wednesday.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Asa Hutchinson is a former governor of Arkansas, not Arizona.