During CNN town hall, Trump digs in on election lies, insults sexual assault accuser

Former US president plays down Capitol riot violence, mulls pardoning rioters, calls host Kaitlan Collin ‘a nasty person’ as she presses him on secret documents he withheld

Former US president Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association Convention in Indianapolis, on April 14, 2023. (Michael Conroy/AP)
Former US president Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association Convention in Indianapolis, on April 14, 2023. (Michael Conroy/AP)

AP — During a contentious CNN town hall Wednesday night, former US president Donald Trump dug in on his lies about the 2020 election, downplayed the violence on January 6, 2021, and repeatedly insulted the woman whom a civil jury this week found him liable of sexually abusing and defaming.

Trump, returning to the network after years of acrimony, also refused to say whether he wants Ukraine to win the war against Russian aggression and said the US “might as well” default on its debt obligation, despite the potentially devastating economic consequences.

The live, televised event — held in early-voting New Hampshire — underscored the challenges of fact-checking Trump in real time. The former president was cheered on and applauded by an audience of Republican and unaffiliated voters who plan to vote in the GOP primary, as moderator Kaitlan Collins sometimes struggled to correct the record as Trump steamrolled on with untrue statements. “You are a nasty person,” he snapped at one point.

The event also highlighted what is perhaps Trump’s most fundamental challenge as he emerged as the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination to take on US President Joe Biden again. While Trump’s tone and divisive statements often thrill Republican primary crowds, he has so far done little to expand his appeal among the moderates and independents who soured on him in 2020 and will be crucial to winning the general election.

Indeed, Trump on Wednesday repeatedly doubled down on his lies that the 2020 election had been “rigged,” even though state and federal election officials, his own campaign and White House aides, and dozens of courts, including Republican judges, have said there is no evidence to support his claims.

He also displayed no remorse for what happened on January 6, when a mob of his supporters violently stormed the Capitol in a bid to halt the certification of Biden’s win. He excused his delayed response that day — he was silent for more than three hours as the carnage unfolded — pulling out a printout of his tweeted timeline as a form of defense.

Instead, he lashed out at the Black police officer who shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbitt, calling him a “thug,” despite a Justice Department finding that the shooting was justified. And he said he is inclined to pardon “a large portion” of the rioters charged in the attack. More than 670 people have been convicted of crimes related to that day, including some found guilty of seditious conspiracy or assaulting police officers.

People protest outside a building on the campus of Saint Anselm College hosting a CNN televised town hall gathering with former US president Donald Trump, in Manchester, New Hampshire, May 10, 2023. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Trump also rejected a suggestion that he apologize to his former vice president, Mike Pence, who was targeted by the mob after Trump wrongly insisted that Pence had the power to overturn the election results.

“I don’t feel he was in any danger,” he said. In fact, Trump said, Pence was the one who “did something wrong.”

He would not commit to accepting the results of the next election, either, saying he would do so only if he feels “it’s an honest election” — as he said before the 2020 election.

The primetime forum — the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign and Trump’s first interview appearance on CNN since before he was elected president in 2016 — drew suspicion from both sides of the political divide as soon as it was announced.

Democrats questioned whether a man who continues to spread lies about his 2020 election loss should be given the airtime. Conservatives wondered why Trump would appear on — and potentially give a ratings bump to — a network he has continually disparaged.

The stakes were raised considerably Tuesday after jurors in New York found Trump had sexually abused and defamed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll nearly three decades ago, though they rejected her claim that he raped her. The jury awarded her $5 million in damages.

Trump, at Wednesday’s event, called the case “fake news” and insisted he didn’t know Carroll, even as he attacked her in deeply personal terms. “She’s a wack job,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Trump has generally not reacted well when pressed onstage about his behavior toward women, most notably during the first Republican presidential debate of 2015, when he sparred with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly and later accused her of having “blood coming out of her wherever.” Carroll is one of more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual assault or harassment over the years; Trump has denied the allegations.

While the civil trial verdict carried no criminal penalties, it is just one of myriad legal issues facing Trump, who was indicted in New York in March over hush money payments made to women who alleged extramarital affairs with him. Trump is also facing investigations in Georgia and Washington over his alleged interference in the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents and potential obstruction of justice.

The difficulties of interviewing Trump live on air became immediately apparent as the town hall began with questions about the 2020 election. As the evening wore on, Collins became more aggressive in trying to pin Trump down on specifics, trying half a dozen times to get him to say what he would do if a federal abortion ban were to reach his desk.

He said that he would “negotiate” so “people are happy.”

E. Jean Carroll arrives at Manhattan federal court, in New York, May 9, 2023. (John Minchillo/AP)

During the exchange, Trump repeated the false claim that abortion rights supporters wanted to “kill a baby” in the ninth month of pregnancy or even after a birth — comments that went unchecked by Collins.

He also refused to say whether he wants Ukraine to win its war against Russia. “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he answered. And he declined to say whether he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, as the International Criminal Court has alleged.

“That’s something to be discussed at a later date,” Trump said, arguing that calling Putin a war criminal would complicate efforts to make a deal to end the conflict. Trump was widely criticized during his time in office for accepting Putin’s insistence that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election to help him, even though US intelligence agencies had determined otherwise.

As for the looming risk of an unprecedented government default, Trump sounded blasé.

“Well, you might as well do it now because you’ll do it later because we have to save this country,” he said.

A discussion about Trump’s refusal to turn over classified documents kept at his Mar-a-Lago club was particularly contentious. When Collins interrupted him at one point, Trump said, “Can I finish?”

“Yeah, what’s the answer?” she said.

“You are a nasty person,” Trump quipped.

Biden responded to the town hall on Twitter, writing: “It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that? If you don’t, pitch in to our campaign.”

Trump has long called CNN “fake news” and sparred with Collins. Nonetheless, Trump’s team saw the invitation from the network as an opportunity to connect with a broader swath of voters than those who usually tune into the conservative outlets he favors. One adviser noted that Trump found success in 2016 by stepping outside Republicans’ traditional comfort zone.

The appearance served as another contrast with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a top rival to Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 and is expected to launch his campaign in the coming weeks.

DeSantis has taken a sheltered media approach, largely eschewing questions from the mainstream press while embracing Fox News, which was once a loyal Trump cheerleader but is now frequently denigrated by the former president.

Trump’s campaign has turned to new channels, including popular conservative podcasts and made-for-social-media videos that often rack up hundreds of thousands of views. His team has also been inviting reporters from a variety of outlets to ride aboard his plane and has been arranging unadvertised stops at local restaurants and other venues to show him interacting with supporters, in contrast to the less charismatic DeSantis.

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