About 50 minutes in to CNN’s town hall with Donald Trump, moderator Kaitlan Collins told him, “The election was not rigged, Mr. President. You cannot keep saying that all night long.”
It was a futile attempt to try to pin him down on his often repeated falsehood that the 2020 presidential race was stolen from him, as Trump never budged from his claim, just as he hasn’t since election night.
In the immediate aftermath of the event, CNN has taken a drubbing on social media for giving Trump a platform to spew falsehoods for 70 or so minutes. Collins herself earned praise for her efforts to fact-check Trump and, at moments, to interrupt him. But the format, before an audience that gave him two standing ovations, instead ended up playing to his strengths. They friendly crowd applauded him, asked softball questions, and even laughed.
Most jarring was when the audience laughed as he talked of the $5 million judgment from a jury that found him liable for sexual assault and defamation. Trump treated the topic as a chance for entertainment, as he boasted of his poll numbers and then mocked E. Jean Carroll, his accuser. And instead of any serious discussion of sexual assault, he explained why he still believes what he said on the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
Collins did try to pin Trump down in a number of other moments, including on whether he wanted Ukraine to win the war with Russia and whether he would support a national ban on abortion. But as we have seen over and over again over the past eight years, Trump presents a unique challenge to even the most seasoned and prepared reporters. Just after the event ended, anchor Jake Tapper told viewers it was an “interesting night” and that “the falsehoods came fast and furious.”
The town hall may have reinforced Trump’s popularity with Republican voters, but he may have done himself no favors when it comes to the active investigations against him. Greg Bluestein of The Atlanta Journal Constitution keyed in on one of his comments, in which he admitted telling Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, “You owe me votes because the election was rigged.” Trump also may have given his potential rematch rival, Joe Biden, more ammunition, as his campaign responded to the town hall in a tweet, “Do you want four more years of that?”
And when Trump called Collins “nasty,” it was a signal that she had gotten under his skin. But he never really diverted from his stream-of-consciousness method of running out the clock. CNN has defending its decision to do a town hall with Trump by pointing to the fact that he is the Republican front runner. But as candidate who has shattered norms and traditions, who has called for terminating the Constitution and who won’t accept the last election as legitimate, he is unlike any other major presidential contender, and much of the media is still vexed in how to cover him.