December 11, 2023

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Doubletree Hotel in Manchester City Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday, April 27, 2023.

Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

CNN still has a Donald Trump problem.

Under new CEO Chris Licht, CNN hopes to reposition itself as the politically middle-of-the-road product since Discovery merged with WarnerMedia last year.

Wednesday’s 70-minute town hall with Trump, hosted by anchor Caitlin Collins, was CNN’s first major opportunity to showcase itself as a factual network since the ownership change. Licht told CNBC last year that the network wants to hear from both Democrats and Republicans, but it won’t allow people to say it’s raining when it isn’t.

Trump has a history of peddling election fraud lies — an example of saying it was raining when it wasn’t raining. But rather than forcing Trump to stay within the purview of the truth, the town hall established a dynamic in which Trump roughed up Collins, who repeatedly tried to stop him from lying during the hour-plus event.

Collins was brave enough to point out throughout the event when Trump turned to fantasy worlds. It might have worked newswise were it not for CNN inexplicably allowing a partisan audience to cheer Trump’s continuous comments throughout the event. The raucous crowd turned the town hall from a potential probing interview into a de facto Trump rally, undermining Collins’ efforts to get him to take on the task.

At one point, Collins kept trying to link Trump to the truth, which bothered Trump, who called Collins “a nasty person.” The crowd cheered.

Collins spent the first 20 minutes of the town hall discussing his refusal to drop the election fraud charges, which have been debunked by courts, election experts and even several prominent Republicans. She responded to a question from an audience member who asked Trump if he would “suspend polarizing rhetoric about election fraud” during his campaign for the presidency.

Trump seemed confused by the question.

“If I see election fraud, I think I have an obligation to speak up,” Trump said. “But the answer is yes.”

Collins continued, “So you’re going to pause on his question, about the 2020 election in the middle of the campaign?”

Trump responded with no answer, “Well, I think we’re going to win. We’re at a point now. We’re pretty close. Let’s win it again and get our country right.”

About 10 seconds later, he continued: “The Constitution states that we should have legal, well-maintained, attention-grabbing elections. We’re not doing that.”

Collins chimed in again, with no evidence of electoral fraud. Trump responded that he knew she had an agenda, but “that’s a terrible election” and “unless someone is really stupid…” before he was done.

In other words, Trump said he would pause to talk about 2020 election fraud, then talk about 2020 election fraud seconds later. Furthermore, he dismisses Collins’ attempts to confine him to reality, arguing that he has an agenda.

In short, that’s Trump’s problem. Live fact-checking Trump in interviews is difficult because he can overwhelm most interviewers with his spout.

CNN’s reaction

“Tonight, Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class reporter,” CNN said in a statement. “She asked tough, unbiased and exposed questions. She followed up and verified President Trump in real time to give voters vital information on where he stands as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner. That’s CNN roles and responsibilities: getting answers and holding the powerful accountable.”

Licht delivered internal staff remarks on Thursday morning, saying he believed the event “absolutely, unequivocally” served the United States.

“You don’t have to like the president’s answers, but you can’t say we didn’t get them,” Lichter said, according to a transcript obtained by CNBC. “That’s our job — to get answers. We haven’t had a news like other news over the years.” The agency held him accountable that way.”

But even CNN executives must have realized that Collins wasn’t really holding Trump accountable on Wednesday. Her efforts to keep him on track are admirable, but tantamount to a burnt-out parent trying and failing to stop her child from eating Halloween candy after trick-or-treating. Plus, CNN added hundreds of cheers every time a kid got a piece of candy.

“While it might be uncomfortable to hear people applaud in response to some of the president’s responses, the audience represented the views of the majority of the nation,” Lichter said. “The mistake the media has made in the past is to ignore their existence.”

The town hall was a success as an event because it gave CNN viewers another look at Donald Trump, who is lead in polls As the Republican frontrunner to win the nomination in 2024. Viewers can now make their own decisions about what they see.

warner bros found CEO David Zaslav told CNBC last week why CNN allowed Trump to attend town halls despite his history of electoral fraud.

“For us, it’s about getting us the right message, getting us the right brand, getting us the right balance,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “There are a lot of propaganda networks out there. Our focus is to be the fact network, the best version of the truth, as Carl Bernstein said, great journalism, not just politics, but when we engage in politics, we need represent both sides.”

From an event planning standpoint, the setting of the town hall does not allow for the best version of the truth to be presented. This may have been an olive branch from a Trump supporter, but it wasn’t the best of news.

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