Donald Trump winner, CNN loser

I debated whether I wanted to write about Donald Trump and CNN, but last night was an embarrassing debacle for the news network and an unexpectedly clear knockout win for the former president. The night was effectively won the moment that CNN invited the New Hampshire GOP and other state groups to help fill the audience, ensuring that Trump would be performing in front of an enthusiastically supportive crowd. Sure, the viewers at home probably weren’t as impressed, and the folks who will see the clips in the next few days might be even less so. But the persistent applause and laughter created a sense that Trump was in complete command of the room and toying with moderator Kaitlan Collins. CNN has a lot of egg on its face this morning. Meanwhile, Trump endorsed defaulting on the debt, and in the process, may well have increased the leverage of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Last night’s “town-hall meeting” turned into a nationally televised live Trump rally, with intermittent questions from moderator Kaitlan Collins that the former president brushed off, mocked, and ignored. Instead, Trump offered the live audience and those at home an auditory version of his Truth Social rants, bulldozing over Collins’s objections.

Meridith McGraw of Politico reported that the audience “was mostly made up of Republicans who offered cheers and a standing ovation to Trump tonight. Last week, CNN invited the New Hampshire GOP and other state groups to help fill the audience per an email that was passed along.”

The result was an extremely pro-Trump audience at Saint Anselm College. Trump won the New Hampshire primary back in 2016 by almost 20 percentage points more than the second-place finisher, son of a mailman John Kasich. In 2020, 365,654 New Hampshire voters cast their ballots for the incumbent, and the people who showed up last night appeared to rank among Trump’s most ardent fans in the state. I suppose if you’re skeptical or not a fan of Donald Trump, you don’t drive somewhere on a Wednesday night to watch him answer questions for an hour.

This meant that when Trump mocked E. Jean Carroll, the audience laughed and applauded.

Every time Collins challenged Trump, the audience was on his side. When he sneered, “You’re a nasty person, I’ll tell ya,” the audience whooped and applauded.

When Trump insisted he didn’t owe an apology to former vice president Mike Pence for January 6, “because he [Pence] did something wrong. He should’ve put the votes back to the state legislatures and I think we would’ve had a different outcome,” there was no sign anyone in the audience had any objection to the contention that Pence had it coming to him.

Thus, Trump’s “win” was more or less assured the moment he walked through the door.

I’m not going to pick on Collins because she had a tough job — perhaps an impossible one — and a lot of other people are going to rip her today. But CNN wildly underestimated the challenge that seemingly everyone else could see coming. This newsletter, just yesterday: “We all know how much Trump loves being challenged and corrected, so tonight’s town hall could turn into something akin to his first debate with Biden in 2020 — lots of crosstalk, interruptions, and maybe even shouting or heated exchanges.”

With that said, I’m not sure what the value was in asking Trump whether he would commit to accepting the results of the 2024 election. He didn’t accept the result of the 2020 election! Last night, he still insisted he had truly won that election and that the presidency had been stolen! Trump accepts election results when he wins, and he rejects them when he loses. Why would anyone expect him to change? And if we know he’s not going to change, what’s the point of asking him that question?

Afterwards, on-air and online, CNN fact-checked Trump . . . for a much smaller audience.

The post-town-hall panel on CNN looked miserable. Our old friend Isaac Schorr scoffed, “Furrow your brow all you want, Mr. Serious Anchor — the same guy who signs your checks just made a multimillion-dollar contribution to Trump 2024 MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

And there’s the rub; it is obvious that within the institution of CNN, Donald Trump is widely seen as a menace to the Constitution, the law, American values, and good sense. The network invited him for a town hall, no doubt relishing the ratings his appearance would generate, but also convinced it could challenge him, keep him in check, expose him, and somehow leave him worse off.

It is likely that the audience at home wasn’t as enthusiastic about Trump’s answers as the Saint Anselm College crowd. And the clips from last night will reach a wider audience than those who were watching live. Non-Trump fans are not likely to be wowed by Trump’s answers, many of which were as much free-association word salad as Vice President Kamala Harris’s ramblings. Here’s how Trump handled a question about gun control:

COLLINS: — in 2023. If you are reelected, are there any new gun restrictions that you would sign into law?

TRUMP: I would do numerous things. For instance, schools, we would harden, very much harden — and also, I’m a very believer — I believe in teachers. I love teachers. I think they’re incredible and they love the children, not quite like the parents, but they love the children in many cases almost as much. Many of these teachers are soldiers, ex- soldiers, ex-policemen. They are people that really understand weapons and you don’t need — 5 percent of the teachers would be more than you could ever have, if you’re going to hire security guards.

But in addition to that, have security guards, you have to harden your entrances. You have to make schools safe. And you can make other places safe, but it is a big mental-health problem in this country more than anything else. And remember, we have 700 million guns — 700 million. Many people, if they don’t have a gun, they’re not going to be very safe. I mean, if they don’t have a gun, it gives them security. Now, you need them for entertainment. You need them for hunting. You need them for a lot of different things. But there are people, if they didn’t have the privilege of having a gun in some form, they — many of them would not be alive today. You know, there’s a certain country that had a very strict policy on guns, very, very strict.

But in the end, Trump got to spend an hour and change gleefully trashing CNN’s questions, counterarguments, attempted fact-checking, and moderator, to the roar of a rapturous crowd. That’s a big win for him.

Meanwhile, it is not really overstating it to say that much of the rest of the mainstream media is apoplectic at CNN this morning.

Politico: “To call it a s***show would be generous.”

Rolling Stone: “One CNN insider who spoke to Rolling Stone called the evening ‘appalling,’ lamenting that the network gave Trump ‘a huge platform to spew his lies.’ The town hall was ‘a f***ing disgrace,’ in the words of another network insider. ‘1000 percent a mistake [to host Trump]. No one [at CNN] is happy.’ ‘Just brutal,’ added one of the network’s primetime producers.”

Slate: “The discussion, moderated poorly by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, was simultaneously a triggering flashback to the bad old days of Trump’s presidency, a frustrating preview of what we can likely expect over the next 18 months, and a conclusive repudiation of CNN CEO Chris Licht’s doomed plan to restore the network’s fortunes by tacking to the imagined middle.”

James Fallows: “This is CNN’s lowest moment as an organization.” Man, nobody remembers Eason Jordan belatedly revealing how the network covered up Saddam Hussein’s brutal abuses to maintain government permission to broadcast from Iraq, huh?

In fact, get a load of this scathing assessment of CNN’s decisions:

It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening. . . .

CNN aired it all. On and on it went. It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage. And Collins was put in an uncomfortable position, given the town hall was conducted in front of a Republican audience that applauded Trump, giving a sense of unintended endorsement to his shameful antics. . . .

CNN and new network boss Chris Licht are facing a fury of criticism — both internally and externally over the event.

How Licht and other CNN executives address the criticism in the coming days and weeks will be crucial. Will they defend what transpired at Saint Anselm College? Or will they express some regret?

That’s from . . . (checks notes) Oliver Darcy of CNN.

One last thought: Did Trump — deliberately or inadvertently — give House Speaker Kevin McCarthy a whole lot more leverage in the debt-ceiling negotiations? Here’s how Trump addressed the issue of the debt ceiling:

TRUMP: I say to the Republicans out there, congressmen, senators, if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default and I don’t believe they’re going to do a default before because I think the Democrats will absolutely cave, because you don’t want to have that happen, but it is better than what we’re doing right now because we’re spending money like drunken sailors, you know the expression.

COLLINS: So just to be clear, Mr. President, you think the US should default if the White House does not agree to the spending cuts Republicans are demanding?

TRUMP: Well, you might as well do it now, because you’ll do it later, because we have to save this country. Our country is dying. Our country is being destroyed by stupid people — by very stupid people.

You can argue this weakens McCarthy, by giving congressional Republicans an incentive to reject any deal and let the country default.

Or McCarthy can go to Biden and say, “You heard him. I’ve got a maniac who’s arguing that a default wouldn’t be so bad, and that we should go ahead and default if you won’t agree to ‘massive cuts.’ If you don’t throw me a bone on IRS agents or something, there’s no way I can get my caucus to pass a deal, and if we can’t pass a deal, both you and I are out of a job in January 2025.”

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