(The Hill) — The biggest event so far in the 2024 election cycle took place in New Hampshire Wednesday evening.
Former President Donald Trump participated in a town hall event hosted by CNN, with Kaitlan Collins serving as moderator.
The fact that the event was happening at all had drawn some criticism beforehand — mostly, but not exclusively, from liberals and the left.
On the other hand, a ratings bonanza was forecast by many media watchers.
After all the hype, here are the main takeaways.
A disaster for CNN
Trump did not so much win the event as CNN lost it — catastrophically.
Not all of the blame can be placed on Collins, though there were clearly moments when she could have pushed back faster or more strongly.
A far bigger problem was a decision, presumably taken by producers, to have a live audience “made up of Republicans and undeclared voters who tend to take part in New Hampshire’s Republican primary,” as Collins put it in her introductory remarks.
What that meant was an audience loudly supportive of Trump at every turn — and plainly disdainful of Collins.
Around halfway through the event, Trump’s description of Collins as “a nasty person” drew whoops of delight.
Not a single tough question was asked of Trump by any audience member.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, Trump’s denial of ever having met, much less abused, E. Jean Carroll, received raucous approval — despite a nine-person jury having found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation of Carroll only the previous day.
Offering his own spin on Carroll’s story, Trump wondered, “What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you are playing hanky panky in a dressing room, OK?”
Many in the audience laughed.
Media figures, as well as politicians on the left, reacted with horror.
“I can’t believe this is being allowed on @CNN,” tweeted Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor whose allegations of sexual harassment sparked the downfall of that network’s one-time supremo, Roger Ailes. “This is promulgating the cult leadership of Trump — and people are laughing at sexual assault.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted, “CNN should be ashamed of themselves. They have lost total control of this ‘town hall’ to again be manipulated into platforming election disinformation, defenses of Jan 6th, and a public attack on a sexual abuse victim.”
Ocasio-Cortez added, “The audience is cheering him on and laughing at the host.”
CNN shouldn’t create programming to please Ocasio-Cortez, of course — any more than it should mold coverage to please Trump.
But the network has serious questions to answer about an event that spiraled so abjectly — and set up one of its own rising stars for a humiliating failure.
Trump was strikingly evasive on abortion
Collins did have some sliver of success when she pressed Trump on his position on abortion.
She was not able to wring from him a specific answer on whether he would sign a federal abortion ban if he were to win back the presidency in 2024. Yet, the vagueness and evasiveness of his response were revealing.
Trump proclaimed that the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade last June was “a great victory.” His rationale was an unusual one.
The former president contended that the decision “was an incredible thing for pro-life because it gave pro-life something to negotiate with.”
The explanation that followed was not clear, but Trump appeared to be arguing that, with the erstwhile constitutional guarantee of a right to abortion gone, it was easier to make deals between liberals and conservatives on certain limits to abortion.
Trying to distance himself from the most rigid anti-abortion positions in his party — positions that have fared badly at the polls in recent months — he added, “I happen to believe in the exceptions” to outright bans.
Still, Trump several times avoided Collins’s question on whether he would sign a federal ban.
Trump on the debt ceiling: ‘You’re gonna have to do a default’
The former president encouraged his party colleagues on Capitol Hill to hold to a hard line in the ongoing talks about the debt ceiling — even if it came at the price of the kind of U.S. default that virtually all credible economists say would be disastrous.
Trump vigorously backed the position put forward by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) among others — that the debt ceiling should only be raised if President Biden and the Democrats accede to steep spending cuts.
The White House has declined to countenance that idea. Democrats often note that Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling three times during Trump’s one term, even as he added more than $7 trillion to the national debt.
Trump insisted Republicans in Congress should stand firm.
“I say to the Republicans out there — congressmen, senators — if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re gonna have to do a default,” he said.
He predicted that the Democrats would “absolutely cave” in the face of such a strong position.
But, he suggested, even if they did not and the U.S. went into default for the first time in its history, “it’s better than what we’re doing right now because we’re spending money like drunken sailors.”
Election lies and downplaying Jan. 6
Perhaps the most predictable part of Wednesday’s event came with Trump’s standard lines about the 2020 election, and his minimization of what took place on Jan. 6, 2021.
In both cases, Collins tried to push back, but a combination of the Trump-backing crowd and his brash demeanor contributed to her getting steamrollered.
Trump said that 2020 was “a rigged election.”
It was not.
He also said that the protesters on Jan. 6 2021 “were there with love in their heart.”
Around 140 police officers were injured on Jan. 6, when a crowd ransacked the Capitol while seeking to overturn a legitimate presidential election and thwart the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump soon afterward became the first American president in history to be twice impeached. The second impeachment was for inciting the Jan. 6 riot.
A big night for Trump spells trouble for his GOP rivals
CNN may well have delivered Trump his biggest boost yet in his quest for the 2024 GOP nomination — an ironic twist for a news network to which the former president almost always used to append the term “Fake News.”
All of the traits that Trump’s hardcore supporters admire were on full display on Wednesday — the belligerence, the swatting-aside of criticism and the mocking of opponents and adversaries.
He never came close to being trapped in any politically awkward spot — save perhaps when declining to answer whether he wanted Russia or Ukraine to win the war sparked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion.
Above all, CNN got humiliated at his hands — a sweet victory for conservatives who detest the network.
The event plainly reinforced Trump’s position as the dominant player in the GOP field.
That is very bad news for the rivals who are already trailing in his wake.