Trump Steamrolls CNN—and the Truth—in Town Hall Debacle

Gun Rights

Donald Trump’s long awaited return to CNN went off the rails almost immediately on Wednesday night, with the former president using the exclusive town hall event to repeatedly lie, mislead viewers, and steamroll CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins—all to the delight of a Trump-adoring crowd.

From the very first seconds of the town hall, Trump was lying. When Collins opened the event with a softball—”why should Americans put you back in the White House?”—Trump immediately leaned into his normal election lies. He repeated debunked theories and passionately argued the election was stolen.

When he got his first question from the crowd—will you suspend the “polarizing” talk about election fraud?—a question that had already been answered in the first minute of the town hall, Trump just pushed forward with more disproven election falsehoods.

When he was asked about Jan. 6, Trump called the Capitol Police officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt “a thug.” He said he would pardon “a large portion” of the Jan. 6 rioters, blamed the attack on Nancy Pelosi—“Crazy Nancy, as I affectionately call her”—and refused to apologize to his former Vice President for endangering his life. Instead, Trump said Mike Pence “should’ve put the votes back to the state legislatures.”

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When Trump was asked about a jury on Tuesday finding him liable for sexual battery and defamation—to the tune of $5 million—Trump repeated many of the same misogynist tropes he based his failed defense on. He called his accuser, E. Jean Carroll, a “wack job,” and he repeated his claims that, “unfortunately or fortunately,” celebrities get away with sexual assault. His mention of “hanky-panky in a dressing room” elicited hysterical laughter from the adulating audience.

When he was asked about the debt ceiling, Trump openly rooted for economic pain—and suggested that pain was politically the right thing to do. Trump said Republicans should hold out for major spending cuts, even if they would hamper the economy because, “if I win, they’re going to be doing the same thing to me in two years, I guarantee you that.”

“They’re going to play a very hardball game,” he continued, referring to Democrats.

When Collins called Trump out for saying the debt ceiling shouldn’t be used as “a negotiating wedge,” he acknowledged that he said that when he was president, but followed it up by saying, with a shrug, he could change his tune now “because now I’m not president.”

The crowd, once again, laughed and applauded.

Throughout the 70-minute town hall, Trump refused to accept reality. When Collins tried to fact-check him, Trump just spoke over her and repeated his falsehoods. When she tried to correct Trump about his election lies, noting that Trump and his supporters lost more than 60 court cases, Trump simply kept lying.

“They found millions of votes on camera, on government cameras, where they were stuffing ballot boxes,” Trump falsely claimed.

Collins repeatedly tried to rectify the record, but Trump just kept forging ahead. When he said the “government cameras” showed “people going to 28 different voting booths”—something that never happened—Collins tried to correct him to no avail.

Halfway through the town hall, CNN staffers were acknowledging the event was a disaster for the truth.

“This is so bad,” one of CNN’s on-air personalities told The Daily Beast before the first commercial break. “I was cautiously optimistic despite the criticism…it is awful. It’s a Trump infomercial. We’re going to get crushed.”

“One of the worst hours I’ve ever seen on our air,” another CNN staffer told The Daily Beast.

And yet another on-air commentator for CNN was clear this wasn’t a good night for the cable news channel. “I’m floored by this whole evening,” this person said.

After the town hall, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung summed up the situation by victoriously tweeting a clip from the movie “Captain Phillips,” in which Somali pirates take over a large container ship.

CNN later released a statement in support of Collins: “Tonight Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist. She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner. That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”

Trump’s game plan seemed to be a familiar one: spew so many lies that fact-checking him would be impossible. Before Collins could correct him on one lie, he was talking over her and telling another.

In a characteristic exchange, Trump repeatedly claimed he built a complete wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I did finish the wall,” Trump said. “I built a wall. I built hundreds of miles of wall. And I finished it, and I said we have to build some more.”

Trump then claimed a “rigged election” got in the way of him completing the entire wall.

“The election was not rigged, Mr. President, you can’t keep saying that all night long,” Collins interjected.

Collins then corrected Trump that his administration had only built 52 miles of wall, to which Trump just falsely claimed that he built “hundreds of miles of wall” that would have been finished in three weeks.

And when Collins interjected again to clarify that Trump had only built 52 miles of new wall, Trump talked over her and dismissed her.

“They are the party of disinformation. This is what she does,” Trump said, to more applause from the Trump-friendly crowd.

Collins tried throughout the entirety of the town hall to combat Trump’s lies, breaking in as much as she could to correct the former president. But the very format of the event—a town hall question and answer, with voters who seemed to cherish every word out of Trump’s mouth—was ill-suited for an even playing field with the truth. Trump was simply free to talk over Collins, keep repeating lies, and then welcome the applause from a crowd composed mostly of GOP voters.

One of the former president’s most meandering answers was on gun control, where he gave a woefully inaccurate summary of gun control in Brazil, where the government instituted a buy-back program in March that he failed to mention.

Even given the opportunity to tout his own administration’s limited action on gun violence, Trump brushed aside his executive order banning bump stocks as NRA-approved, and said the device key to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 60 people dead and more than 400 wounded was a “very unimportant thing.”

“The NRA, I went with them, they said they don’t mean anything. All they do is teach you to shoot inaccurately,” he said.

On abortion, Trump said he was “honored” to have appointed the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade, calling the decision an asset for the GOP.

“And because of what I’ve done, we have a great negotiating ability,” Trump said.

When asked by Collins what he meant by that, Trump briefly alluded to a range of abortion bans starting at six weeks.

Collins offered Trump a chance to specify whether he would support a federal abortion ban, but he punted.

“I’m looking at a solution that’s going to work,” Trump said. “Very complex issue for the country. You have people on both sides of an issue, but we are now in a very strong position. Pro-life people are in a strong position to make a deal that’s going to be good and going to be satisfactory for them. If you weren’t able to get rid of—you wouldn’t be having a discussion if you weren’t able to get rid of Roe v. Wade.

Trump also defended his administration’s child separation policy, and argued cities wouldn’t be “swamped” with migrants if the Biden administration continued the practice decried by the UN’s human rights chief.

When asked if he would continue to give weapons and other military assistance to Ukraine, Trump took the opportunity to relitigate his first impeachment and delayed answering the question.

He wouldn’t say whether he wanted Ukraine or Russia to win the war. “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he said.

Collins continued pressing back against Trump across a variety of false claims, but the former president largely talked over her, at one point calling her “a nasty person.”

And even though Trump largely avoided laying out any sort of vision for the future, and barely mentioned Biden, and mostly just talked about old personal grudges like the 2020 election, Jan. 6, the Carroll case, and the wall, Trump operatives were declaring victory before the town hall was even over, with one source close to the former president saying he “dominates every room he’s in.”

“He’s been on TV since before Kaitlan was born,” this source said.

The Trump campaign went into the night looking for a viral moment, and other longtime Trump observers told The Daily Beast they saw parallels going into the event with Trump’s first debate in Aug. 2015, when former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was a moderator and served as a certain foil for Trump.

One topic Trump didn’t mention was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, at least not by name. The closest he got to attacking DeSantis was a glancing shot when Trump noted that he’s leading in the polls “by a lot.”

To end the night, Collins asked Trump if he would commit to supporting the results of the 2024 election.

“If it’s an honest election, correct, I will,” Trump said, in less than definitive fashion.

As Collins signed off, Trump could be seen shaking her hand and telling her she did a nice job. He finished his on-air performance by flashing the crowd a thumbs up.

Justin Baragona and Zachary Petrizzo contributed reporting for this story.

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