Trail Mix: Donald Trump Already Wants to Go Back on CNN

Gun Rights

Welcome to Trail Mix, a fun but nutritious snack for your election news diet. See something interesting on the trail? Email me at jake.lahut@thedailybeast.com.

This week, we dive into the messy aftermath of Donald Trump’s CNN town hall and some shifting vibes around gun control on the trail in New Hampshire.

He came, he saw, he steamrolled

When the lights finally dimmed on Donald Trump’s CNN town hall Wednesday night, a few things were clear.

The former president didn’t put forward a vision for his 2024 campaign. He largely ignored real attacks on his rivals, President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He spent most of his time re-litigating the 2020 election. And he provided, at best, muddled answers on ultra-sensitive issues like abortion, guns, and Jan. 6.

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And Trump’s camp couldn’t be happier.

A source close to the former president indicated he and his team buzzed about the town hall performance on their flight back to Florida—with music blasting on the sound system.

The former president is even open to doing another CNN town hall, said the source close to him. “If invited, he would return. I’m sure of it,” they said. “He’s unbreakable and doesn’t back down.”

It’s not just Trump’s team that believes Wednesday night was a net win for him.

One GOP strategist not tied to any 2024 campaign gave a few reasons for the optimism. “No. 1, he got to be combative with CNN,” they said. “No. 2, it shows he’s not afraid to go into the lion’s den while DeSantis continues to hide in the Tallahassee basement. No. 3, he got to play up a lot of issues that are important for him with the base.”

A top adviser from Trump’s 2016 campaign, who has since gotten off the MAGA train, told The Daily Beast they enjoyed perhaps too much Grey Goose vodka immediately following the town hall to comment.

“I actually think he was good,” the former Trump adviser said later on Thursday, recovering from drinking away their sorrow the night before. “He knows how to control a dynamic.”

But other Republicans weren’t so generous. Many had a hard time seeing how Wednesday’s display helps Trump in his ultimate goal of taking back the White House in 2024, not just scoring points against an already-despised media.

“He didn’t move a single movable voter last night,” Alyssa Farah Griffin, co-host of The View and Trump’s former White House communications director, told The Daily Beast. “It was doubling down on grievance to his base with the same tired shtick. If I’m a Republican who actually wants to take him on, last night showed how horrendously unappealing he is to moderate Republicans and he’s radioactive to independents.”

While plenty of Republicans were noting that Trump didn’t do much to actually move voters, for the rest of the 2024 field, the punch-down primary is here to stay. Despite ample opportunities to hit Trump on a number of general election liabilities, competing campaigns were hesitant to criticize the former president when presented with the opportunity on Thursday.

One staffer for a rival campaign declined to go after Trump, but indicated they would be game if this edition of Trail Mix were to focus on two other 2024 hopefuls.

The only prospective or current candidates to hit Trump directly after the town hall were New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—neither of whom have officially entered the race—and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has been the only declared candidate to even tepidly criticize Trump by name.

Notably, however, at least one prominent figure in DeSantis’ camp was happy to punch at Trump—even if Trump largely forgot about the Florida governor.

“No message for the country’s future. No plan for winning in 2024. Couldn’t provide any answers on policy issues. Didn’t lay a glove on Biden. Barely talked about anything 95% of 2024 voters care about. And they think this is a home run?” Matt Wolking, the strategic communications director for the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down Super PAC, tweeted following the town hall. “Bananas.”

For the Trump campaign and MAGA faithful, the return to CNN marked a renaissance of sorts.

With Trump leaning heavily into 2016 nostalgia ever since jumping in, his ability to hijack the CNN airwaves marked the rebirth of that pre-White House energy, when his supporters lionized him as a chaos-agent outsider. Some Trump loyalists, naturally, took this nostalgia to absurd extremes, even portraying him as a biblical hero.

“The Hand of God is on President Trump,” Mark Burns, a current Trump adviser and pastor, told The Daily Beast following the event. “He was able to go into the lion’s den just like Daniel and come out stronger than he went in. That’s nothing but the Hand of God.”

Other advisers in Trump’s orbit called the town hall a “massacre,” “brutal” for CNN, and, in true Trumpworld fashion, “terribly biased” and “aggressive.” Trump’s own spokesperson Steven Cheung posted a meme from the movie Captain Phillips portraying Trump as the lead Somali pirate and CNN as the container ship being hijacked.

A spokesperson for CNN declined to comment.

The celebration started early for those around Trump. Shortly after the ex-president pulled out his prop of Jan. 6 tweet receipts, his team began celebrating. “He’s been on TV since before Kaitlan was born,” a source marveled to The Daily Beast on Wednesday evening.

The Trump camp was so giddy about their boss’s performance that many were passing around a new campaign shirt that reads, in CNN’s trademark script, “THIS IS TNN,” along with a photo of Trump with the cartoon sunglasses used in the famous “Deal with it” meme.

As The Daily Beast reported on Wednesday, the Trump campaign sought to create a viral “flip the script” moment, which they believe they did when Trump pulled several pieces of paper from the inside pocket of his blazer in a strange attempt to whitewash the timeline of Jan. 6.

Longtime Trump adviser and friend Michael Caputo said the town hall “went exactly as I expected.” Previously, Caputo told The Daily Beast “if Fox hadn’t fired Tucker Carlson, maybe we’d be seeing a different platform.”

“After the [E. Jean Carroll] verdict, there was some hand-wringing among the President’s supporters about this event,” Caputo said on Thursday. “I knew he’d dominate the event even more and the verdict would fuel his efficacy.” The outside adviser also noted that moderator Kaitlan Collins “was more aggressive than many expected, in a manner the TV audience disliked. This also helped Trump immensely.”

Some Republicans sympathized with Collins and credited her for trying to rein in Trump, but the format and his shamelessness in bulldozing over any constraints proved to be too much.

“I just don’t think there’s a journalist in the country who can handle him,” the GOP strategist said. “If you get too combative, it’s perfect for him. He’s just gonna out-dominate you… By the time you’ve figured out what to pin him down on something, he’s 73 seconds in and already said 11 other things that aren’t true.”

The GOP campaign trail shifts on guns

There’s something happening on the campaign trail in the nation’s first primary state: GOP presidential hopefuls are getting far different questions on what was once one of the party’s sacrosanct issues.

Guns.

At recent events for Nikki Haley and Chris Christie in New Hampshire—during which news of a recent mass shooting somewhere in America has never been far removed—voters have specifically asked about the role of the National Rifle Association in pressuring politicians to oppose gun control reforms.

​​“There is a shift,” a senior New Hampshire Republican told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations. “I think the NRA would be wise if we took this bull by the horns and decided to be part of the solution.”

The Republican continued that while gun control has been a third rail in famously libertarian-minded New Hampshire for a long time, there’s a growing sense that GOP voters are getting queasy about supporting the status quo.

Nationally, more and more Republicans are telling pollsters they’re supportive of stricter gun measures. But given the gun lobby’s dominance within the GOP—and the ardently pro-gun attitudes that still prevail among an influential swath of the party—it seems presidential hopefuls are simply unwilling to take the risk.

An exchange between a New Hampshire GOP voter and Haley during a recent Q&A in Bedford underscored the dynamic.

“A question about guns: I would love to know your personal opinion on the NRA, guns, all the school shootings,” the voter asked Haley. “I have two kids in public school and two kids in college.”

In response, the former South Carolina governor empathized with the voter as a mother, but steered clear of any specifics in her answer. Haley earned some quick applause when she told the crowd she holds a concealed carry permit, before pivoting to mostly boilerplate messaging around mental health.

“So there’s a lot of things I think we can do when it comes to guns, there’s a lot,” Haley said. “But going after and taking them away from people trying to protect themselves? As long as all this madness is happening, we can’t do that.”

Haley promptly ended the Q&A on that answer, but took more questions from members of the audience in a photo line.

Image of the Week

Via Trump campaign website

Complete and Total Endorsement News

One of Trump’s top advisers from his 2016 and 2020 campaigns has jumped ship. Steve Cortes—once a fire-breathing MAGA loyalist and Steven Bannon pal—endorsed Ron DeSantis in a scathing Newsweek op-ed.

“Given the pervasive pessimism of the country broadly and widespread dissatisfaction with the idea of a Biden-versus-Trump rematch, doesn’t it make eminent sense to consider the most compelling candidate who can break that logjam: Ron DeSantis?” he wrote. “We are better than a rematch, America.”

That sentiment didn’t sit well with his former Trump pals.

“It goes without saying, he will never be back on WarRoom, ever,” Bannon declared on his show, before taking aim at Cortes calling his decision to turn on Trump motivated by “money,” or as he later put it: “Thirty Pieces of Silver.” Likewise, his old friend, former Trump White House adviser Peter Navarro, declared he was in “mourning” due to Cortes leaving for the “dark side.”

The cherry on top: his daughter, former Trump 2020 staffer Kingsley Cortes, responded to the news with a photo of herself and Trump with the caption, “MAGA.” (Cortes declined to comment when reached by The Daily Beast.)

Polling station

Bannon said the quiet part out loud back in 2018.

“The Republican college-educated woman is done,” the former Trump strategist said. “They’re gone. They were going anyway at some point in time. Trump triggers them.”

Following the CNN town hall event where Trump continued attacking E. Jean Carroll—a day after a jury ordered him to pay her $5 million in damages for defamation and sexual battery—it seemed like all of the chatter about Trump pivoting to re-appeal to suburban women went out the window.

Trump not only won the vote among white women in 2020, he managed to expand his margin among them against Biden compared to Hillary Clinton, growing his lead from 47 percent to 45 percent in 2016 to 53 percent to 46 percent in 2020.

Women with a college diploma support Democrats at a much higher rate than women with only a high school degree, who are more likely to vote Republican, albeit by a smaller margin. Some 60 percent of white women with a college degree support Democrats in national polls from 2020 and 2022, while 50 percent of women without a college degree support Republicans.

In the early May Washington Post/ABC poll that had Trump narrowly leading Biden, Trump’s strongest support remains among both white men and white women without a college degree.

With far fewer college educated women up for persuasion in 2024 compared to 2016, it’s even less surprising that Trump made little to no effort at moderating his tone on the Carroll case or his party’s continued liability on abortion rights.

Campaign lit

Trump GPT

We gave ChatGPT a chance to mimic the answers Trump gave at the CNN town hall on Wednesday night—and it did a pretty good job.

The Santos question

Not for the first time, House Republicans are trying to figure out what to do with Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), following his indictment in federal court this week, Deputy Politics Editor Sam Brodey reports.

Keeping up with the Thomases

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ myriad gifts and high-dollar expenses covered by his billionaire pals look even worse when lined up with the court’s docket of cases, The Daily Beast’s Ursula Perano reports in this week’s Pay Dirt newsletter.

Trump doomsday prepping

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins prepared extensively for the range of falsehoods Trump might utter at the New Hampshire town hall, and the former president was played in mock sessions by CNN VP Mark Preston, according to Michael Grynbaum and Benjamin Mullin of The New York Times.

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