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Column: Really, CNN? A town hall for Trump now?

Donald Trump clapping at campaign rally
Former President Trump arrives at a campaign rally in late April in Manchester, N.H. Trump’s town hall forum on CNN on Wednesday is the first major TV event of the 2024 presidential campaign.
(Charles Krupa / Associated Press)
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Here we go again?

Count me as conflicted, skeptical and even a tad outraged that CNN is giving Donald Trump an hour of prime time Wednesday, for a so-called town hall in New Hampshire, the first state scheduled to hold a Republican presidential primary next year.

This ratings grab by the ratings-challenged network comes as CNN’s new management is seeking to rebrand the cable mainstay as a down-the-middle news source that (laudably) is more welcoming to Republicans. That backstory, together with the general O.J.-like hyper-coverage of Trump’s recent travel from Mar-a-Lago to Manhattan to be criminally arraigned in a hush money case, suggests little reason to believe that CNN or the media in general have learned from their excesses covering Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign — mistakes that CNN’s former president subsequently conceded.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Back then, candidate Trump received an estimated $5 billion in free media, more than for the other major Democratic and Republican candidates combined, helping to propel him into the presidency.

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I realize Trump is newsworthy: He’s far and away the Republican front-runner, to the shame of his party. Attention must be paid.

Yet he’s also a disgraced former president, wannabe autocrat, sexual predator and unremorseful seditionist, the first ever to deny his electoral defeat and to incite an insurrection. He faces possible criminal indictment for those actions, perhaps soon, as well as for allegedly conspiring to make off with boxes of government documents, including highly classified ones, when he finally left the White House.

He’s been booked and fingerprinted for the preelection payoffs to both a porn star and a Playboy model. And on Tuesday, a unanimous Manhattan jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll, who alleged Trump raped her years ago; her testimony and others’ during the trial brought to life Trump’s infamous claim that, as a star, he could just grab women’s genitals with impunity.

New York jury finds Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing writer E. Jean Carroll and orders the former president to pay her $5 million.

May 9, 2023

In short, this is an abnormal candidate who must not be normalized on national television in some run-of-the-mill Q&A with voters. A rule of thumb: If his lips are moving, he’s lying.

So a live town hall is not an ideal format for handling Trump. CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins, who covered Trump as president, will have the immense challenge of fact-checking him in real time as he responds to the selected Republican and independent voters — some of whom are presumably friendly to the former president — as well as putting some hard questions of her own to Trump.

Such as: How could you take the oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” when you called for its “termination” to overturn the 2020 election, and did nothing but watch television as the mob sacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021?

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Or: How can you claim to support law enforcement when you repeatedly disparage the police who protected the Capitol, even calling one a “murderer,” and when you promise, if reelected, to pardon some of those responsible for the riots that injured more than 100 officers and were tied to the later deaths of five?

When the former president posted he was going to be arrested, Kevin McCarthy began flexing House power to interfere on Trump’s behalf.

March 22, 2023

And: Why in the world would you double down on your claim in the “Access Hollywood” tape and testify in your deposition in the Carroll case that “stars” like yourself have been able to “grab [women] by the pussy” for a million years?

A CNN spokesperson, responding to critics of the planned town hall, acknowledged Trump’s “unique circumstances.” That’s doublespeak regarding a mendacious, twice-impeached, indicted and criminally targeted candidate, and it is hardly reassuring. But as David Zaslav, CEO of CNN’s parent company, WarnerBros. Discovery, told CNBC Friday, “He’s the Republican front-runner. He has to be on.”

But does he have to be on now, by himself, in a town hall format? The New Hampshire primary, after all, is still nine months away.

Why was he the first choice for what CNN says will be many such candidate town halls? What about the other Republicans who’ve announced bids yet remain all but ignored, including former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and several longshots, among them California’s 2021 gubernatorial-race loser, Larry Elder?

Marjorie Taylor Greene leverages power with her ‘own the libs’ antics. Let’s give her what she deserves — as little attention as possible.

March 2, 2023

For CNN’s answers, see above: Ratings.

For Trump, this is a win-win proposition. As one of his advisors told Vanity Fair about his agreement to appear on CNN, “Going outside the traditional Republican ‘comfort zone’ was a key to President Trump’s success in 2016.” Trump’s rivals, according to the advisor, “are afraid to do anything other than Fox News.” And if Trump stumbles, he can just heap more blame on “fake news” — mainstream media, “the enemy of the people.”

As for CNN, let’s hope it passes the test it has set for itself: “Ask tough questions, follow up and hold him accountable to give voters the information they need,” as the network spokesperson put it. Even more, let’s hope it provides an example for the rest of us in the media.

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I don’t have all the answers, nor do many of my journalism compatriots, about how to cover an emerging campaign like none before, a democratic process that has, at its center, a candidate who has tried to blow up democracy and might do so again.

Hope aside, I doubt that CNN does either.

@jackiekcalmes

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