Donald Trump and his circle believe he got everything he wanted from the controversial town hall hosted by CNN, even as it prompted a wave of outrage and embarrassed the network, including many of its own staff who were upset that it gave Trump a platform to lie to a large audience.
The former president was interested in doing a town hall mainly because it would give the campaign material to clip for social media. He was interested in doing it on CNN because the campaign reached an understanding – which a spokesperson denied – that it would book more Trump surrogates.
Trump was not particularly concerned by whether the broadcast would get high ratings, though he told CNN’s chief executive, Chris Licht, backstage that he would boost their ratings, to which Licht nodded and said he should have “a good conversation and have fun”, two of the people said.
Trump’s advisers saw the town hall ultimately as a strategic win for the former president, who revelled in playing off the live audience of Republican and Republican-leaning voters in New Hampshire, which is hosting the first 2024 GOP presidential primary, and talked over the CNN moderator, Kaitlin Collins, as she tried to fact-check him in real time.
Afterwards, Trump allies joked that the event amounted to an hour of Trump infomercials and should be recorded as an in-kind campaign contribution, and that Trump’s nearest rival for the nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, would be crushed in a similar debate.
The event – which saw Trump mock the writer E Jean Carroll, whom he had just been found liable of sexually abusing – may not help him in a general election, especially among female voters.
Joe Biden later tweeted: “It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that? If you don’t, pitch in to our campaign.”
In stark contrast to the Trump camp’s jubilation, the mood inside CNN was dour amid widespread reports of internal disgust. The network’s own media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote in his newsletter on Wednesday that it was “hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN”.
The Trump campaign appears to have got what it wanted out of the CNN town hall in part because it negotiated the terms of the event with an unusual degree of leverage, according to multiple people familiar with how the planning unfolded.
For starters, Trump’s team for months played hard to get with CNN – which first reached out to do a town hall almost as soon as Trump announced his 2024 candidacy. However, the campaign had always been more likely to go with CNN over MSNBC or Fox News, the other major networks in talks to host an event.
The campaign already had pro-Trump commentators and surrogates appearing on Fox News shows, and while MSNBC has recently had higher ratings than CNN, the liberal network was seen by advisers as being inhospitable ground compared with the Licht-era CNN that has tried to cater more to Republicans.
Trump’s team also figured that CNN worked for its needs because it could have as the moderator Kaitlan Collins. Collins is a rising star who co-hosts the network’s morning show but has also remained on the Trump beat and has carefully preserved a relationship with the ex-president.
Pairing Collins with Republicans who mostly voted for Trump in 2020 was as close to home turf as the campaign could get. The team said it would have rejected Jake Tapper, after he threatened to ban Republicans who endorsed Trump’s 2020 election lies from his shows.
The campaign also made sure the pre- and post-town hall coverage featured Trump surrogates on air. Among the bookings: former Trump White House press aide Hogan Gidley, pro-Trump congressmen Brian Mast and Byron Donalds, as well as pro-Trump senator JD Vance.
A spokesperson for CNN denied that the network made any formal agreement to book surrogates as guests.
Not every moment in the town hall was seen as a win for Trump, though, as his own missteps may have created more legal headaches for a man already surrounded by multiple investigations.
Asked by Collins whether he had shown classified documents at Mar-a-Lago to anyone, Trump replied “not really”, an answer that is almost certain to be of interest to prosecutors examining his mishandling of such material.
Special counsel Jack Smith, appointed by US attorney general Merrick Garland to lead the criminal investigation into Trump’s retention of national security documents and obstruction of justice, has recently been asking witnesses whether Trump was showing off the documents after his presidency.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Trump may face a new lawsuit from the writer E Jean Carroll over his diatribe against her at the town hall, when he said that her decades-old sexual abuse claim that a jury held him liable for this week was a “made-up story”.
But Trump was personally jubilant on the flight back to Florida and played It’s a Man’s World by James Brown, people familiar with the matter said. - Guardian