Donald Trump’s primetime return to CNN Wednesday for the first time since 2016 felt like a throwback: Trump with the long, twisting answers; the interviewer at times struggling to fact-check him or return his focus to the question at hand; and then, eventually, both talking over each other as Trump flings insults her way.
Wednesday’s town hall in New Hampshire was the first time in years that Trump faced prolonged questioning from an outlet outside the friendly confines of conservative media outlets of his choosing.
He had branded CNN “fake news” and never granted any of its journalists an interview while president. Trump’s campaign said he was appearing on the network now to step outside a GOP comfort zone as he already starts to turn his focus to a potential 2024 general election rematch with Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump’s appearance on CNN comes at a time of jarring dualities for the former president: The Republican is facing a crescendo of legal problems yet seems in a stronger position than ever to become his party’s presidential nominee. He’s attempting to reach mainstream media viewers despite having deepened his embrace of extremists since leaving the White House, continuing to align himself with those involved in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and dining with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist.
Here’s what to know about Trump’s CNN town hall:
QUESTIONS ON SEXUAL ABUSE CASE
Trump’s appearance came a day after a New York jury found him liable for sexually abusing a woman nearly 30 years ago and defaming her when she spoke about it publicly.
Jurors awarded columnist E. Jean Carroll $5 million in damages. The jury rejected her claim of rape and instead found Trump responsible for a lesser degree of sexual abuse. Trump denied it, saying he never encountered Carroll at a 1996 department store and did not know her and has said he plans to appeal the verdict.
Trump skipped attending the trial and did not testify in his own defense during the proceedings, with jurors instead being shown video from a pretrial deposition, making Wednesday the first time he’s had to face a public questioning in the case.
Trump, when asked by CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins about the verdict, said his poll numbers went up and repeated his statements that he didn’t know Carroll, though at least one photograph has surfaced of them together.
“I don’t know her. I never met her. I had no idea who she is.” He dismissed a question from Collins about whether it would impact his standing with female voters and in response, he launched into a recounting of Carroll’s claims in a mocking voice, drawing laughs and claps from the live audience. Collins tried to interrupt but Trump continued and called it “a fake story” and referred to Carroll as “a wack job.”
TRUMP’S TREATMENT OF WOMEN
Collins asked Trump about his comments in the infamous “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without asking permission. The video was played in the trial and Collins asked him Wednesday if he stood by his remarks.
Trump defended his comments, saying he had said women let him grab their genitals without permission because he was a star.
“I can’t take that back because it happens to be true,” Trump said.
REPEATING ELECTION LIES
Trump, with his first question from Collins about why he should be elected again, started almost immediately by repeating his lies about the 2020 presidential election and repeating his unfounded claims of election fraud.
Striking a more muted tone than he usually uses onstage before his cheering supporters, Trump called it a “rigged election” and a “shame” before Collins cut him off, correcting his statements and asking him to publicly acknowledge his loss to Biden.
Trump did not, immediately returning to his false claims. As Collins continued to try to fact-check Trump, he interrupted again, calling for honest elections and then pivoting to other subjects like immigration.
He came back to his claims at other points in the town hall, sprinkling the lie into answers on unrelated subjects and prompting Collins to interrupt him and correct him.
DEFENSE OF JAN. 6 INSURRECTION
For more than two years, Trump had largely avoided sitting for any tough questioning about the lies he spread about his 2020 election loss that spurred the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But the issue came up early Wednesday, when Collins asked Trump if he regretted his actions on that day.
The former president quickly began boasting about the size of the crowd he spoke to before some began marching on the Capitol and said the attendees believed the election was “rigged.”
“They were there proud. They were there with love in their heart. That was unbelievable and it was a beautiful day,” Trump said.
Collins pressed Trump on why he didn’t ask his supporters to leave the Capitol or send help to disperse the protesters, and he deflected, trying to cast blame on then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He at one point pulled out printed copies of his Twitter posts that day in which he finally, hours after the attack on the Capitol began, asked his supporters to leave the Capitol.
He said he was inclined, if elected president again, to pardon many of those convicted for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack. More than 1,000 people have been charged and more than 600 have been convicted so far.
FAKE ABORTION CLAIMS
Trump, responding to a question about the U.S. Supreme Court overturning abortion rights last year, took credit for appointing three of the justices who joined in the majority ruling, saying “it was such a great victory and people are starting to understand it now.”
He repeatedly falsely claimed that abortion rights supporters wanted to “kill a baby” in the ninth month of pregnancy or even after a birth. The claim is based on a misleading interpretation of a Senate vote. Trump also dodged questions about whether, if elected president again, he would sign a national abortion ban. Trump instead spoke about the court ruling as having given anti-abortion activists “negotiating ability.”
“What I will do is negotiate so people are happy,” he said, when asked if he would sign a federal abortion ban. He repeatedly said he would “do what’s right,” without specifying what that was.
NO ANSWERS ON UKRAINE
Trump repeated his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him “a smart guy,” but said “he made a bad mistake” to invade Ukraine. Trump claimed, without evidence or explanation, that if he was still president Putin would never have invaded Ukraine. He said he had “a great relationship” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, referencing his 2019 impeachment after pressuring Zelenskyy for “a favor” while withholding military aid.
Trump wouldn’t answer a question about whether he’d continue to send U.S. aid to Ukraine to keep fighting against Russia’s invasion, and he wouldn’t answer a question about who he wanted to win the war, only saying, “I want everybody to stop dying.”
KEEPING CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS
Trump defended his keeping of top-secret and confidential government documents at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, which is now the subject of a Justice Department probe.
“I had every right to do it. I didn’t make a secret of it,” Trump said.
Trump gave a vague answer when Collins asked if he ever showed the classified documents to anyone.
“Not really. I would have the right to,” the former president said.
“What do you mean ‘Not really?’” Collins asked.
“Not that I can think of,” Trump said.
Trump noted that other presidents and vice presidents had kept documents after leaving but didn’t mention that he refused to turn over documents even after receiving a subpoena.
SPARRING WITH COLLINS
Early on in the town hall, Collins gave Trump more leeway to respond to questions, allowing the president to steamroll through his answers and jump from topic to topic, sprinkling in false claims as she sometimes tried to interrupt. As the town hall went on and Collins jumped in earlier and more often to correct him or get him back on track, Trump got frustrated.
At one point, he repeated an insult he hurled at Hillary Clinton during their 2016 presidential debate, calling Collins “nasty.”
In a back-and-forth about the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, Trump and Collins were talking over each other and Trump at one point declared: “You’re so wrong. You don’t know the subject.”
“I do know the subject,” she retorted.
The audience, made up of Republicans and independents, was largely favorable to Trump and laughed and cheered as he made his points.
“I like you guys,” Trump told the crowd at the end.
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