By JILL COLVIN (Associated Press)
During a controversial CNN town hall Wednesday night, former President Donald Trump weighed in on his lies about the 2020 election, played down the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and repeatedly insulted the woman a civil jury found this week guilty of sexual abuse. and defaming.
Trump, returning to the network after years of acrimony, also declined to say whether he wanted Ukraine to win the war against Russian aggression and said the US “might as well” honor its debt obligation despite the economic consequences potentially devastating.
The live televised event — held in early voting New Hampshire — underscored the challenges of fact-checking Trump in real time. The former president was cheered and cheered by an audience of Republican and unaffiliated voters planning to vote in the GOP primary as moderator Kaitlan Collins struggled at times to correct the situation as Trump lashed out with untrue statements. “You’re a nasty person,” he snaps at one point.
The event also highlighted what is perhaps the most fundamental challenge to Trump, who has become the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination to take on President Joe Biden again. While Trump’s tone and divisive statements often excite Republican primary crowds, he has so far done little to broaden his appeal among the moderates and independents who rode him in 2020 and will be crucial to winning the general election.
Indeed, Trump on Wednesday repeatedly doubled down on his lies that the 2020 election was “rigged,” even as state and federal election officials, his own campaign and White House aides, and dozens of courts, including judges Republicans said there was no evidence to support his claims.
He also showed no remorse for what happened on January 6, when a crowd of his supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of Biden’s victory. He excused his delayed response that day — he was silent for more than three hours as the carnage unfolded — by pulling out a printout of his Twitter timeline as a form of defense.
Instead, he lashed out at the black police officer who shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbitt, calling him a “coward,” despite the Justice Department finding that the shooting was justified. And he said he was inclined to pardon “a large number” of the rioters accused in the attack. More than 670 people were convicted of offenses related to the day, including some found guilty of seditious conspiracy or assaulting police officers.
Trump also rejected the suggestion that he apologize to his former vice president, Mike Pence, who was targeted by the mob after Trump wrongly insisted that Pence had the power to overturn the election results.
“I don’t feel like she was in danger,” he said. In fact, Trump said, it was Pence who “did something wrong.”
He would not commit to accepting the results of the next election either, saying he would only do so if he believed they were “a fair choice” – as he said ahead of the 2020 election.
The primetime forum — the first major televised event of the 2024 presidential campaign and Trump’s first CNN interview appearance since before he was elected president in 2016 — drew suspicion from both sides of the political divide as soon as it was announced.
Democrats have questioned whether a man who continues to spread lies about his 2020 election loss should get air time. Conservatives questioned why Trump would appear on a network he has continually disparaged and possibly give him a ratings boost.
The stakes were raised considerably on Tuesday after New York jurors found that Trump sexually abused and defamed columnist E. Jean Carroll nearly three decades ago, although they rejected her claim that he raped her. The jury awarded him $5 million in damages.
Trump, at Wednesday’s event, called the case “fake news” and insisted he did not know Carroll, even as he attacked her in deeply personal terms. “It’s a crazy thing,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
CNN said in a statement that it was proud of Collins’ performance and that voters deserve to hear from a front-runner for the White House.
“Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist. She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she tracked and vetted President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican front-runner,” the network said after the town hall. “That’s CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful accountable.
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 anchor Megyn Kelly, and more later accused her of having “blood coming out of her everywhere. .” 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.
While the verdict in the civil suit did not carry criminal penalties, it is just one of a number of legal issues facing Trump, who was indicted in New York in March over hush money payments made to women who alleged extramarital affairs with him. 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 difficulties of interviewing Trump live became immediately apparent as the town hall began with questions about the 2020 election. As the evening wore on, Collins became more aggressive in trying to pin Trump down on specifics, trying half a dozen times to get him to say what he would do if a federal abortion ban reached his desk.
He said he would “negotiate” so that “people are happy”.
During the exchange, Trump repeated the false claim that abortion rights advocates wanted to “kill a baby” in the ninth month of pregnancy or even after a birth — comments not controlled by Collins.
He also declined to say whether he wants Ukraine to win the war against Russia. “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he replied. And he refused to say whether he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, as the International Criminal Court has ruled.
“It’s something to be discussed at a later date,” Trump said, arguing that naming Putin a war criminal would complicate efforts to reach an agreement to end the conflict. Trump has been widely criticized during his tenure for accepting Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election to help him, even though US intelligence agencies determined otherwise.
On the looming risk of an unprecedented government default, Trump sounded the alarm.
“Well, you might as well do it now, because you’ll do it later, because we’ve got to save this country,” he said.
A discussion about Trump’s refusal to turn over classified documents kept at his Mar-a-Lago club was particularly contentious. When Collins interrupted at one point, Trump said, “Can I finish?”
“Yes, what’s the answer?” she said.
“You’re a nasty person,” Trump joked.
Biden responded to the town hall on Twitter, writing: “It’s simple folks. Do you want four more years of this? If not, join our campaign.”
Trump has long called CNN “fake news” and fought Collins. However, Trump’s team saw the invitation from the network as an opportunity to connect with a wider range of voters than those who typically tune in to the conservative points they favor. One aide noted that Trump was successful in 2016 by breaking out of the traditional Republican comfort zone.
The appearance served 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.
Associated Press writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.