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The Moment That You Knew
What CNN’s disastrous town hall showed us.
Critics had worried that giving the indicted, twice-impeached, coup-plotting, chronically lying sexual predator an unedited, live television forum might turn out badly.
The reality, however, was far ghastlier: a sh*tshow for the ages, and a moment that captured the thorough degradation of both our politics and the media. “It was a f**king nightmare,” remarked one savvy observer, “and it was programmed to BE a f**king nightmare.”
Trump was, of course, thrilled.
For her part, Kaitlan Collins was poised, prepared, and determined, but she never stood a chance. She raised all of the key questions and tried (not always successfully) to ask followups.
But Trump just rolled over her with a torrent of invective, jibes, and bullsh*t. The fact-checkers were reduced to asterisks. “He declared war on the truth,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper said afterward. “And I’m not sure that he didn’t win.”
Where to start?
Trump called a black law enforcement officer a “thug.”
He repeated baseless conspiracy theories about 2020.
He lied about losing the 2020 election. (CNN’s Oliver Darcy tweeted: “I've lost count of how many times Trump has lied about the election. Collins keeps fact-checking him, but he keeps lying.”)
He lied about calling for “terminating” the Constitution so he could be returned to power.
He lied about his role on January 6th.
He suggested that he would pardon many of the January 6th insurrectionists.
He insisted again that Mike Pence should have overturned the election.
He endorsed letting the country default on its debt, even if it would bring on an economic cataclysm.
He claimed that residents of the Chinatown neighborhood in Washington, D.C., “did not speak English as part of an allegation that Biden stored boxes there after his vice presidency because he had nefarious ties to Beijing.”
He refused to back Ukraine against Russia.
He lashed out at Collins as “nasty woman” — and the audience CHEERED.
But this was hardly the worst of it. Actually, not even close.
The day after a federal jury found that the ex-president had sexually abused and defamed E. Jean Carroll, Trump turned the episode into a joke, mocking and insulting his victim.
The former president then turned Collins' other questions about Carroll into his version of a comedy routine, cracking up the audience CNN assembled of New Hampshire Republicans and effectively independent voters. At many points, Trump appeared to repeat the same rhetoric that led to Carroll's suit in the first place…
Trump went on to suggest that Carroll, who vividly recounted her allegation on the witness stand, was overly promiscuous.
The CNN audience loved it.
"What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you're playing hanky panky in a dressing room? I don't know if she was married then or not. I feel sorry for you John Johnson," Trump said to a chorus of laughter.
It was a shocking moment, even for veterans of Trump-era politics.
But that was the moment we knew.
Even the folks at CNN seemed to recognize how bad it was. “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” Oliver Darcy, the network’s senior media reporter wrote in CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter. “It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage.”
But let’s be clear about this: last night was not Kaitlan Collins’s fault. The decision to amplify Trump’s firehose of disinformation on live television doomed the whole thing from start. As Mehdi Hasan writes today, the “ridiculous town hall format and an audience seemingly recruited ‘from the Mar-a-Lago parking lot’, put its own anchor in a position to fail.”
Her bosses at CNN should have known that, but they made it clear last night that they had learned nothing. Or simply didn’t care.
Increasingly, Chris Licht is to CNN what Elon Musk is to Twitter.
The network’s defenses for all of this are bullsh*t on the surface. Of course, CNN needs to “cover” and report on the frontrunning GOP candidate. He’s news.
But this was not journalism we saw on CNN last night: this was entertainment programming, the kind of reality television show that did so much to foist Trump onto the body politic. He owned last night’s format.
In a different format, Collins could have performed a flagrant act of journalism. She could have done an in-depth taped interview with the former president, the sort that Jonathan Swan has done. She could have been given the chance to ask detailed follow-up questions, like Mehdi Hasan might do. CNN could have edited the responses, rather than simply air one lie after another.
Instead, well, you saw it… (via Rex Hupke):
Sexual abuse, like the kind a jury just found Trump liable of? That’s a laugh line for these folks. Literally. They laughed during CNN’s town hall as Trump continued to likely defame E. Jean Carroll, the woman he was just found liable of defaming.
The Jan. 6 domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol? Trump said he’ll swiftly pardon most of the now-imprisoned attackers, possibly even some of the Proud Boys who were convicted of seditious conspiracy, because they’re “great people.” And that brought applause from the crowd.
A rat-a-tat-tat string of lies about the “rigged election”? The crowd chuckled.
A lie about “finishing” the border wall he barely started? You know, the one Mexico didn’t pay for. The crowd applauded.
Lie, lie, lie, lie, lie. Laugh, applaud, chuckle, clap, cheer.
This was the moment we knew.
We knew who Trump was of course. But last night showed us who we are and what’s about to happen. This is the GOP frontrunner.
He is still the star who can do anything. And it will get worse.
“Listen,” wrote author Jared Yates Sexton, “if this town hall is any indication, and I think it is, the Trump Campaign of 2024 is going to be infinitely more disturbing and upsetting. I've spent a lot of time studying this man and his movement. I'm stunned by the depths here. This is . . . awful.”
More key reads:
Putting him onstage, having him answer questions like a normal candidate who didn’t get people killed in the process of trying to end the democracy he’s attempting to once again run, normalizes what Trump did. It sends a message that attempting a coup is just part of the process; that accepting election results is a choice; and that there are no consequences, in the media or in politics or anywhere else, for rejecting them.
One might hope that Trump’s loss in New York would lead him to slink away in shame, but we now live in post-shame America. Instead, Trump will sit for a town hall on CNN tonight, where he will field questions as if he is a normal person running for office instead of a sexual abuser who incited sedition and violence against the government he is once again seeking to control.
Trump, of course, has the self-awareness of a traffic cone, and he is seemingly incapable of remorse. But CNN’s decision to move ahead with the event, as if nothing has happened, is disappointing. A more defensible position would have been to scrap the town-hall format and tell Trump that he is still invited to sit, one-on-one, with a CNN reporter. To present him to voters as just another candidate, however, is the very definition of normalizing his behavior.
A thread: As I said before, this was an impossible stage. But there were a few key moments where CNN could have taken back the con from Trump, even tho his cavalcade of lies made it very difficult and the audience was gamed in his favor. Here’s my quick thoughts as an interviewer.
In no particular order, you need to top Trump early and often, despite accusations of being unfair. For example, the obvious Nasty Woman retort would have been: “And a jury just yesterday unanimously called you a sexual predator. So here we are. Do you want to keep going here, because to quote Captain America, ‘I can do this all day.’” Make sure you can do it all day. (I can.)…
The Trump loving audience would jar anyone and it is easy to let it get to you. But it is also an opportunity to win some over, which is especially powerful if you are in someone’s home base. You only need one.
So, when the crowd started snickering about E. Jean Carroll, for example, I would have stopped the interview cold, told Trump politely to sit still for a second, walked over to a man and a woman in the crowd who laughed and said: “Do you have a daughter? I do. She’s just three.”
Then, in the kindest tone possible, ask them if they said they did have a daughter or sister or wife, if they thought a man forcibly touching a woman’s genitals was actually funny, because I could not imagine they would since they did not look cruel. In any case, I would have interacted with the crowd a lot more, as most tend to fold when you pull individuals away from the mob. People don’t like to be found when they are acting badly and are usually embarrassed….
At times, it seemed like just another Trump rally. Even down to the moment where Trump turns the crowd against the press, as he did when he called Collins a “nasty person” to her face. (To her credit, she didn’t flinch.)
The event was a disaster for the reason that all of Trump’s live events are problematic: It’s much easier to spew lies on live television than it is for anyone to push back against them. Live coverage privileges the liar, no matter how nimble the interviewer.
But it all happened because CNN wanted a show. And they sure got one. No one should pretend it was some kind of public service.
Throughout the 70-minute town hall, Trump refused to accept reality. When Collins tried to fact-check him, Trump just spoke over her and repeated his falsehoods. When she tried to correct Trump about his election lies, noting that Trump and his supporters lost more than 60 court cases, Trump simply kept lying.
“They found millions of votes on camera, on government cameras, where they were stuffing ballot boxes,” Trump falsely claimed.
Collins repeatedly tried to rectify the record, but Trump just kept forging ahead. When he said the “government cameras” showed “people going to 28 different voting booths”—something that never happened—Collins tried to correct him to no avail.
Halfway through the town hall, CNN staffers were acknowledging the event was a disaster for the truth.
“This is so bad,” one of CNN’s on-air personalities told The Daily Beast before the first commercial break. "I was cautiously optimistic despite the criticism... it is awful. It’s a Trump infomercial. We’re going to get crushed.”
“One of the worst hours I’ve ever seen on our air,” another CNN staffer told The Daily Beast.
By the end of the night, the reviews were abysmal. The words “disaster” and “disgrace” were plastered all over Twitter….
Even network talent and talking heads participating on CNN panels following the event seemed shell-shocked. And sources inside the network confided their deep regrets.
“It was a complete disaster,” one CNN employee told Playbook, arguing that the format — specifically, stacking the audience with Trump supporters who cheered his lies — was a “strategic error.”
“It made it seem like CNN was endorsing that behavior,” the employee said. “Incredibly disappointing.”
BONUS: The reaction for Ron DeSantis’s Super Pac was… interesting?
Today’s special “Trump Trials” podcast— with Lawfare’s Ben Wittes, and special emergency guest Tim Miller.
Last night’s townhall, The Carroll verdict, the George Santos indictment, the Oath Keepers’ sentencing…
This also seems timely