The first words out of Donald Trump’s mouth Wednesday at CNN’s Republican Town Hall were a continued – and still factually bankrupt – defense of his 2020 election denial, hardly a direct answer to host Kaitlan Collins’ opening question: Why should people vote for you?
“Because we did fantastically, we had 12 million more votes than we did in 2016 … when you look at that result and you look at what happened in this election … unless you’re a stupid person, you see what happened,” he said.
As the show wore on, Trump’s onslaught of election talking points and other obfuscations at times turned vicious and even personal, including a vile smear of the freshly victorious E. Jean Carroll. At one point late in the broadcast, he called Collins a “nasty person” as she tried to push back on details about the classified documents investigation.
Collins, who said in her opening statement at St. Ansel College in New Hampshire that “no question is off the table,” mentioned Trump’s myriad legal woes and continued election denial theories before introducing the former president and Republican front-runner. She showed no discomfort in repeatedly challenging Trump, plainly stating several times that he was incorrect and attempting to press him on details – but he continued talking over many of her objections, and often talked so fast that her objections didn’t even register.
“There’s no evidence of [election fraud],” she said, plainly responding to one of his many false claims, before moving on to questions from the audience, made up of mostly GOP supporters and undecideds. “We have questions about the claims you’re making, from voters.”
“Will you suspend polarizing talk of election fraud during your run for president?” was the first.
“Yeah, unless I see election fraud,” he replied, once again diverting his answer away from the intent of the question. “We should have voter ID, we should have one-day voting, we should have paper ballots.”
Collins also asked Trump if he had any regrets about Jan. 6, 2021. He never answered directly, instead plowing into a litany of his tweets, quotes from his speech, and other interactions that day as a defense.
“January 6 had to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of people,” Trump said. “They were there proud, they were there with love in their heart … I was asked to come in and make a speech. I said ‘Walk peacefully and patriotically’ … we can go sentence after sentence after sentence.”
Collins continued pushing back on Trump’s many assertions, including that Vice President Mike Pence’s reluctance to disrupt the certification process was a mistake, and could have changed the outcome.
“That’s not what happened,” she said bluntly, but Trump was undeterred.
Collins soon turned to the fresh verdict from a Manhattan federal jury, which on Tuesday found Trump liable for the sexual battery and defamation of author E. Jean Carroll and ordered him to pay her $5 million, based on her civil claims that he raped her in 1996.
Trump immediately launched into an attack on Carroll’s character, suggesting she had called someone an “ape” during a photo opp and suggesting her story sounded like a sexual fantasy. He also continued to deny that he knew Carroll.
“I don’t know who this person is … this is a fake story,” Trump said. “She is a wack job.”
Collins also asked what Trump would do to turn the economy around and battle the rampant inflation.
“Drill, baby drill,” he said, echoing an old Sarah Palin rally cry and drawing applause from the Trump-friendly crowd. “We created the biggest economy in history, the best economy in the world. We had this place rocking’ … We were energy independent. These stupid fools ended it.”
Collins rolled through several topics, from gun control, the war in Ukraine and the classified-document scandal that led to a raid of Trump’s Florida estate, then became less of an urgent issue when it was discovered that Biden also had documents at his Delaware home.
“The person who has the most documents is Joe Biden!” Trump said. “He has 1,800 boxes of … “
“That’s not accurate, and you know that,” Collins interrupted. The two went back and forth on the topic, butting heads over details before Trump pushed the name-call button: “You’re a nasty person, you know that?”
Collins, unfazed, brushed off the insult and continued biting into the documents-scandal details, parrying Trump’s increased volume and aggressive stance as the town hall was coming to a close. At one point, she asked whether he still had any classified documents in his possession.
“Are you ready?” he replied. “No. I don’t have anything.”
CNN’s decision to host Trump drew fierce criticism from both inside and outside the network, which has struggled mightily with ratings since the Republican president left office. With CEO Chris Licht’s tenure hitting just over a year following the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, CNN’s total day and primetime ratings for the month of April 2023 are down double digits both in terms of total viewers and viewers in the key cable demographic among adults 25-54 when compared to April 2022, just before Licht took over the network.
Following the controversial town hall, Collins may be offered the network’s 9 p.m. news hour, according to a Wednesday report in Puck News. The 31-year-old former White House correspondent, who held that position at the Tucker Carlson-founded Daily Caller shortly after graduating the University of Alabama, would certainly further the political shift already in process at the direction of Licht, who recently promoted Collins to the network’s new morning show earlier this year.