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It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.
Kaitlan Collins is as tough and knowledgable of an interviewer as they come. She fact-checked Trump throughout the 70-minute town hall. Over and over and over again, she told him that the election was not stolen. That it was not rigged. That there was no evidence for the lies he was disseminating on stage.
“The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” Collins told Trump at one point during the event. “You cannot keep saying that all night long.”
Yet, he did. Trump frequently ignored or spoke over Collins throughout the evening as he unleashed a firehose of disinformation upon the country, which a sizable swath of the GOP continues to believe. A professional lie machine, Trump fired off falsehoods at a rapid clip while using his bluster to overwhelm Collins, stealing command of the stage at some points of the town hall.
Trump lied about the 2020 election. He took no responsibility for the January 6 insurrection that those very lies incited. And he mocked E. Jean Carroll’s allegations of sexual assault, which a jury found him liable for on Tuesday.
And 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.
Yes, some news was made. The town hall spotlighted his insistence on continuing to peddle 2020 election lies. Additionally, he said the US should default on its debt if the White House does not agree to Republican spending cuts, refused to say whether he wants Ukraine or Russia to win the war, and declined to give a straight answer on abortion.
But for most of the night, the nation’s eyes were transfixed on Trump’s abuse of the platform that he was given. At one point, he even insulted Collins, calling her a “nasty person,” to which the crowd of New Hampshire Republican primary voters broke out in cheers.
“We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told,” anchor Jake Tapper candidly said after the event wrapped up.
Trump’s team was, naturally, delighted with the result, according to reports. “Advisers to Trump are thrilled at how this is going so far for him,” The NYT’s Jonathan Swan reported. “They can’t believe he is getting an hour on CNN with an audience that cheers his every line and laughs at his every joke.”
Neither could anyone else.
While Collins is largely receiving praise for her relentless fact-checking of the former president, she was facing an impossible task. 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?
For now, CNN is defending itself.
“Tonight Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist. She asked tough, fair and revealing questions,” a network spokesperson said. “And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner.”
“That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”
“The predictably disastrous [CNN] town hall was indeed disastrous,” television news vet Mark Lukasiewicz tweeted. “Proving again: Live lying works. A friendly MAGA crowd consistently laughs, claps at Trump’s punch lines - including re sex assault and Jan 6 - and the moderator cannot begin to keep up with the AR-15 pace of lies.” (Twitter)
“This thing was madness, total madness,” Bill Carter said. “Like giving a microphone to Drunk Uncle and saying: go for it!” (Twitter)
“This is CNN’s lowest moment as an organization,” James Fallows argued. (Twitter)
“THIS is the 2024 Republican presidential primary,” Brian Stelter wrote. “Look away if you choose, but this is what it’s going to be like. Should news outlets sanitize it or stare it in the face?” (Twitter)
To that point: “I have complaints, but I don’t really blame CNN for having a townhall with the GOP front runner,” Sarah Longwell argued. “It’s good to know what we’re facing. We can’t hide from the fight in front of us. Trump is probably going to be the nominee and we need to be clear-eyed about what we’re dealing with.” (Twitter)
“This was a preview of what American journalism can expect from a 2024 campaign featuring Mr. Trump, who despite his ubiquity in political life has rarely appeared on mainstream TV outside of Fox News since leaving office,” Michael Grynbaum wrote. (NYT)
Justin Baragona said CNN was walking away from the town hall “with a lot of egg” on its face. “At the same time, I feel like Kaitlan Collins is doing as good as she can in this situation,” he added. (Twitter)
“Chris Licht said he wouldn’t allow anyone on his network that said it’s raining when it’s not,” Alex Sherman pointed out. “But he’s let someone on now who says it’s raining when it’s not, and he added hundreds of people to applaud when he does it.” (Twitter)
“Trump seemed to have a significant home field advantage over Collins,” Jeremy Barr wrote. (WaPo)
“Props to [Collins] who was in an impossible position but did a heroic job of fact-checking Trump throughout the town hall,” Peter Baker tweeted. “No easy task given how many factually untrue things he said in such a short time.” (Twitter)
“Even in a world where [Collins] was correcting every Trump lie as they spewed forth — and we are pretty far from that world — the braying crowd would make Trump look like the victor,” contended Jonathan Chait. (Twitter)
“This was not Kaitlin Collins’ fault,” Charlie Sykes said. “The format was impossible and CNN’s bosses should have known that.” (Twitter)
“This format programmed her — and the country — for failure,” echoed Tom Nichols. (Twitter)
“This isn’t [Collins’] fault (she is doing the best one can), but this is a gushing geyser of disinformation that is cannot be fact-checked in real time,” added Dan Pfeiffer. (Twitter)
Democratic politicians were livid: “CNN should be ashamed of themselves,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said. (Twitter)
Seung Min Kim reported that the televisions on Air Force One, which “are always” tuned to CNN, were changed to show MSNBC during the town hall. (Twitter)