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CNN’s Trump Town Hall: All Spectacle, No Sunlight

It’s 2016 all over again.
May 10, 2023
CNN’s Trump Town Hall: All Spectacle, No Sunlight
(Screenshot via CNN)

CNN’s public argument for holding a New Hampshire town hall with former President Donald Trump boils down to this: Voters needed to hear from Trump directly because he is the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination.

One problem with that: His views are already well known. And Trump on Wednesday night remained committed to his lies about the 2020 election, continued to downplay January 6th, smeared women who accused him of sexual misconduct, and refused to back Ukraine against Russian aggression.

It was all spectacle and no sunlight—and it showed far more about those who put it on and attended it than it did about Trump.

CNN gifted a twice-impeached former president who incited a riot at the U.S. Capitol a primetime media event. Moderator Kaitlan Collins did an impressive job, but the horror is in the set-up. The event’s audience was stacked with Republican primary voters already inclined to support him, as evidenced by the fact that they repeatedly clapped, laughed, and cheered for him while he reaffirmed his most outrageous lies. None of this was urgent, even from a political perspective. The first primary is seven months away.

The first twenty minutes of the event were dedicated to rehashing Trump’s well-known lies about January 6th. He unfurled the firehose in quick fashion: He said the election was rigged, described January 6th as a “beautiful day,” said then-Vice President Mike Pence was never in danger and criticized him for failing to send the Electoral College results back to the states, denigrated the black police officer who shot Ashli Babbit as a “thug,” lied about giving an order to secure the grounds, and extended his offer to pardon rioters if elected.

Again, nothing new.

What the town hall really revealed is how committed the establishment media and the Republican party are to normalizing a political leader who has provably glorified violence against our American institutions and his political opposition. Even with all the fact-checks and critical analysis surrounding the event, what was laid bare is that even a former president under criminal investigation, one who just one day earlier was held liable for a sexual attack and defamation, will still be treated like any other popular candidate.

Media executives seem to think that if a presidential candidate like, say, Bernie Sanders were given a town hall, then Donald Trump should be given one, too. As if a chronic tendency for blatantly lying and stirring up violence on the basis of those lies shouldn’t disqualify a person from receiving live coverage where anything can happen, and frequently does.

That isn’t to say that Trump should be ignored or censored. It should not be too much to expect that a major news organization that seeks to set a high standard for credibility not provide an insurrectionist and his friends a hosted room where they all can whoop it up and laugh about sexual assault, among other things.

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.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.