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CNN’s Town Hall Didn’t Hold Trump Accountable — It Normalized His Lies

This media spectacle served to normalize the immoral and the destructive.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport on November 5, 2022, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

In the run up to Wednesday night’s CNN town hall with Donald Trump, I was on the fence as to whether it was a good idea to give the Mar-a-Lago troll such a platform. On the one hand, it offered an opportunity for viewers to see just how mendacious, mean and shifty this man is; on the other, it provided Trump with 90 minutes of free primetime to air his noxious views.

Having watched as much of it as I could stomach, all ambiguity I might have had on this question was gone. It was, from start to finish, an absolute disgrace. If I could scrub away the memory, I would.

From the get-go, this CNN spectacle served to normalize the immoral and the destructive. In the hour leading in, Wolf Blitzer corralled a group of talking heads to welcome viewers to what he earnestly termed “an important night here in the United States.” Let’s be clear: There was nothing inherently “important” about it; it was an event conjured out of whole cloth by CNN executives looking to cash in on Trump’s notoriety and ability to draw a crowd. A day after Trump was found liable by a New York jury of sexually battering and defaming E. Jean Carroll, Blitzer stewarded a conversation about the verdict as if he were referring to an obscure-but-bizarre policy question, such as the imposition of tariffs on Lego sets, or whether O.J. Simpson should have a national holiday named after him. Perhaps the most distasteful line came from a male talking head who opined that “politically speaking, [the verdict] is a loser. His closest political advisers do not think this is a winner for him.” Um? Really? That’s how we talk about sexual assault these days? As if it’s something that, with the right spinmeisters just might be somehow spinnable as a political plus?

The town hall itself was no better. Held in front of a crowd in Manchester, New Hampshire, it was made up exclusively of people who intended to vote in the GOP primary — and that seemed, even within that narrow cohort of the American voting public, to have been further winnowed to include a suspiciously large number of Trumpies. The town hall ended up being simply a platform for the U.S.’s only twice-impeached, indicted and recently-found-liable-for-sexual-assault ex-president to recycle old and untrue canards, as well as to turn the Carroll verdict into something akin to an aging midcentury comic’s standup routine in a down-at-the-mouth casino.

The moderator, Kaitlan Collins, who had previously worked for the right-wing Daily Caller, actually did her best to rein Trump in, and, every so often, to hold his feet to the fire. But hers was, truly, a Sisyphean task.

Trump flat-out lied at warp speed. He repeatedly spat out falsehoods about the 2020 election result, doubling down on his allegations of fraud. He refused to apologize for putting Mike Pence’s life in danger, falsely asserting that his vice president “did something wrong” by not refusing to recognize Biden electors. He claimed that he had told the crowd on January 6 to act peacefully, and that most of them had; that they were there with “love in their heart,” and that “it was a beautiful day.” He asserted he would pardon most of the January 6 insurrectionists because they had done nothing wrong and were living in “hell” as a result of malign prosecutions. He said he had ordered the military and national guard in to protect the Capitol but that “Crazy Nancy Pelosi” had nixed this idea.

Lie, lie, lie, lie, lie… It made my head feel heavy just trying to imagine how much energy has to go into concocting such a barrage of untruths. Does Trump literally spend time in front of the mirror preening his toupee and trying on lies for size?

Trump — who had just been found liable for defamation and ordered to retract his defamatory comments — instead used this free primetime platform to call E. Jean Carroll a “wack job” and told a rambling story about how he had wanted to introduce into evidence the fact that she had once named either her pet dog or her pet cat “vagina,” as if that somehow negated her ability to recall being assaulted. Then, once his audience was warmed up, he explained how the “horrible Clinton-appointed judge” had refused to allow this into the record.

He opined that the House Republicans should force a default on the national debt unless they succeeded in securing deep budget cuts from Biden — despite the fact that pretty much every economist of any credibility has averred that such a default would presage a global economic catastrophe and likely cost millions of jobs stateside. One can only hope that even the spineless Kevin McCarthy will realize this is a bridge too far.

Trump coyly refused to say what sort of national abortion ban he would favor, if any — but then doubled down on his lies that Democrats wanted fetuses to be aborted at nine months of pregnancy, or even, somehow, after birth. (Just to be clear, since CNN somehow neglected to inform viewers of this, Democrats are not roaming the countryside looking for women about to give birth whom they can persuade to instead abort their fetuses.)

Collins pushed back occasionally, and at times quite forcefully, but on the whole, she was steamrolled. The longer the night went on, the more Collins looked like she had accidentally swallowed a frog that was performing yoga exercises on her insides. She looked positively sickened by it all. But there was no relief; she had, quite clearly, been hung out to dry by the CNN executives who had agreed to this inane format.

There was no real-time fact-checking. Inexplicably, there was no chyron reminding viewers that Trump was wrong, that he was playing fast-and-loose with the truth, that he was, in short, conjuring up “facts” out of his derrière. Given a platform to spew venom largely without consequence, this soulless grifter lapped it up, taking one softball question after another from the audience, basking in their applause and laughter as he pursued his grotesque comedy routine about E. Jean Carroll.

After 45 minutes I’d had enough — pretty much anything would have been better than this. Watching the Christmas log burn again and again on replay would have been more entertaining. Listening to coyotes howling would have been more politically informative.

But I read later that one of the highlights of the second half of this ridiculous spectacle was when Trump refused to say which side he’d support in the Russia-Ukraine war if he was returned to power. That is, I guess, on a par with his appalling comment, after the fascist march on Charlottesville in 2017, that there were “very fine people” on both sides.

That Trump is an inveterate liar, an egotistical coup plotter and a charlatan has been shown beyond doubt. A month ago he was indicted for his role in the paying of hush money to Stormy Daniels. A jury has just concluded that he is a brutal sexual assaulter. He will, in the coming months, likely be indicted for a host of other crimes. All of that was public knowledge, yet CNN chose anyway to normalize this man and to give him 90 minutes to peddle his bile. The network gave him a platform to defame anew a woman who just won millions of dollars from him for his earlier rounds of defamation. And CNN gave him free rein to further attack the country’s already damaged democratic institutions. This ghastly spectacle must surely rank as one of the lowest moments in television news’ storied history. Edward R. Murrow, the CBS anchor who, 70 years ago, had the fortitude to take on — and help take down — the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy, must, after this grotesquery, be turning in his grave.

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