Trump pushes false election claims, mocks E. Jean Carroll to applause during CNN town hall

Former US President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, US, on Thursday, April 27, 2023. 

Adam Glanzman | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday again pushed false claims that his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden was “rigged” as he clashed with a CNN host in a live town hall.

Trump also mocked and lashed out at the woman who in a civil lawsuit accused him of rape, one day after a jury in that case found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation.

The 70-minute event in New Hampshire marked Trump’s first appearance on the network since the 2016 presidential campaign, according to CNN. It was moderated by “CNN This Morning” anchor Kaitlan Collins, who attempted to fact-check Trump in real time. It featured a live audience of Republicans and undeclared voters.

Much of the crowd was highly favorable to Trump, frequently applauding and laughing in support of his remarks.

Trump, who for years has falsely claimed he beat Biden in 2020, told Collins that “unless you’re a very stupid person you see what happened” in that contest. When asked if he would publicly acknowledge his loss, Trump referred to claims from a group that promotes election conspiracy theories.

Trump also defended his supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when asked if he regretted his actions on that day. Trump said the people who came to hear him deliver a speech near the Capitol — some of whom would then storm the Capitol and disrupt the transfer of power from Trump to Biden — were “there with love in their heart.”

“It was a beautiful day,” said Trump, who went on to suggest former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bore blame for the riot.

He also said he would likely pardon “many of them” if he won back the White House in 2024.

Trump also praised Ashli Babbitt, one of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd shot and killed Babbitt as she and a mob of Trump supporters tried to break through a door. Trump on Wednesday called Byrd, who is Black, a “thug.”

When an undeclared voter asked him about the country’s debt and the ongoing clash in Congress over the debt ceiling, Trump said the U.S. should go into default if Democrats don’t agree to major spending cuts.

“Well, you might as well do it now, because you’ll do it later. Because we have to save this country,” Trump said when pressed on his views on a sovereign debt default.

Collins pushed Trump repeatedly on abortion, likely to be a major issue in the 2024 cycle. Trump, who has been more opaque than some of his GOP competitors, repeatedly declined to give a firm answer on whether he would sign a federal abortion ban if he was elected again.

“I would negotiate so people are happy,” he said at one point, while touting his conservative Supreme Court picks who were critical to last year’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. When the host continued to push for clarity, he said, “I’m looking at a solution that’s going to work.”

The conversation also lingered on Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Trump dodging questions about whether he wanted Ukraine to win but saying he thought Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s invasion was “a tremendous mistake.”

The town hall at times sounded more like a debate, with Collins frequently interjecting to rebut Trump’s claims and the ex-president responding aggressively. “You’re a nasty person,” Trump told Collins at one point, as she grilled him on why he took classified documents to his Mar-a-Lago home after leaving the presidency.

Some journalists and media critics were quick to pan the town hall, while mostly praising Collins’ efforts. Others defended the event. “Collins was a true pro and showed what a stellar journalist she is,” New York Times reporter Peter Baker tweeted.

Since souring on CNN years earlier, Trump has railed against the network, its ratings, its leadership and many of its on-air personalities.

But following a change in leadership at CNN and amid a reported ratings slump, the network has apparently decided to give Trump another chance.

“He’s the Republican frontrunner. He has to be on,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, whose company owns CNN, said of Trump on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last week. The town hall was also seen as a test of CNN CEO Chris Licht’s rule against airing disinformation.

The decision raised concerns from Trump’s critics, who argue giving the ex-president a live platform to spread misinformation neglects the lessons the media learned during his presidency. Some of them have also accused Licht of trying to court a more centrist audience as part of his overhaul of the network.

E. Jean Carroll exits the Manhattan Federal Court following the verdict in the civil rape accusation case against former U.S. President Donald Trump, in New York City, May 9, 2023.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The timing has only heightened the controversy. The town hall comes one day after a New York jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation in a civil case brought by writer E. Jean Carroll.

The jury ordered Trump to pay Carroll $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

It’s far from clear whether the outcome of that trial, which Trump decried in a stream of social media posts Tuesday evening and which his lawyer has vowed to appeal, will affect his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

During the town hall, Trump repeatedly mocked Carroll to cheers and laughter from the crowd.

Trump, who lost his 2020 reelection bid to Biden, still appears to be the de facto head of the Republican Party. Even his would-be primary rivals had mostly muted reactions to the jury’s damning verdict.

Trump appeared to chide CNN ahead of the town hall, suggesting in a social media post the network booked him “because they are rightfully desperate to get these fantastic (TRUMP!) ratings once again.”

“Could be the beginning of a New & Vibrant CNN, with no more Fake News, or it could turn into a disaster for all, including me. Let’s see what happens?” Trump wrote.

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