CNN Town Hall Shows the Network Still Doesn't Know How to Handle Donald Trump

Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
  • CNN is trying to rebrand itself as a down-the-middle, facts-only network.
  • Trump's Wednesday town hall performance felt more like a rally than an attempt to keep him tethered to the truth.
  • CNN allowed a pro-Trump cheering crowd to laugh and root on lies about election fraud and other comments.

CNN still has a Donald Trump problem.

Under the leadership of new CEO Chris Licht, the cable news network wants to reimagine itself as a no-nonsense, politically down-the-middle product since Discovery's merger with WarnerMedia last year.

Wednesday's 70-minute town hall with Trump, moderated by anchor Kaitlan Collins, was CNN's first big opportunity since the change of ownership to showcase itself as a network of facts. Licht told CNBC last year the network wants to hear from both Democrats and Republicans, but it won't allow people to come on and say it's raining when it's not.

Trump has a history of peddling election fraud lies — an example of saying it's raining when it's not. But instead of forcing the former president to stay within the bounds of the truth, the town hall set up a dynamic where Trump ran roughshod over Collins, who repeatedly attempted to keep him from lying throughout the hour-plus event.

Collins gamely pointed out throughout the event when Trump was veering into fantasy land. That may have worked journalistically – had it not been for the fact that CNN inexplicably allowed a partisan audience to cheer on Trump's running commentary throughout the event. The effect of the raucous crowd turned the town hall from a potentially probing interview into a de facto Trump rally, undermining Collins' attempts at holding him to task.

At one point, bothered by Collins' consistent attempt to tether Trump to the truth, Trump called Collins "a nasty person." The crowd cheered.

Collins spent the first 20 minutes of the town hall discussing his refusal to back off election fraud claims, which have been consistently debunked by courts, election experts and even several prominent Republicans. She took a question from an audience member who asked if Trump would "suspend polarizing talk of election fraud" during his run for president.

Trump seemed confused by the question.

"If I see election fraud, I think I have an obligation to say it," Trump said. "But the answer is yes."

Collins followed up, "So you will suspend talk, to his question, about the 2020 election on the campaign trail?"

Trump answered with a nonanswer: "Well, I guess we're going to just win. We're at a point now. We're getting so close. Let's just win it again and straighten out our country."

About 10 seconds later, he followed with: "The Constitution says that we're supposed to have legal and well-maintained and well-looked-at elections. And we didn't have that."

Collins again interjected that there's no evidence of election fraud. Trump responded by saying he knows she has an agenda but "that was a horrible election" and "unless someone is very stupid" before trailing off and not finishing the thought.

In other words, Trump said he'd suspend talk about the 2020 election fraud and then, seconds later, spoke about 2020 election fraud. Moreover, he brushed off Collins' attempt at keeping him within the bounds of reality as having an agenda.

This is the Trump problem in a nutshell. Live fact-checking Trump in an interview is extremely difficult because he will steamroll most interviewers with a torrent of words.

CNN reaction

"Tonight Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist," CNN said in a statement. "She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. 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."

Licht followed up Thursday morning with an internal staff address, saying he thought the event "absolutely, unequivocally" served America.

"You don't have to like the president's answers but you can't say we didn't get them," Licht said, according to a transcript obtained by CNBC. "That's our job – to get answers. And we held him accountable like no other news organization in years."

But even CNN executives must have realized Collins didn't really hold Trump to account on Wednesday. Her attempts at keeping him on track were admirable but tantamount to an exhausted parent trying and failing to keep her children from eating their Halloween candy after trick-or-treating. Plus, CNN had added a crowd of hundreds to cheer every time a child ate a piece of candy.

"While it might've been uncomfortable to hear people clapping in response to some of the president's answers, that audience represents the views of a large swath of America," Licht said. "The mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that they exist."

The town hall was successful as an event in that it allowed CNN's audience to again see Donald Trump, who is leading polls as the Republican front-runner to win the nomination in 2024. Viewers can now make their own minds up about what they saw.

Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav told CNBC last week why CNN allowed Trump to participate in a town hall despite his history of election fraud lies.

"For us, the focus is let's get the message right, let's get the brand right, let's the get the balance right," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "There are a number of advocacy networks out there. Our focus is to be a network of facts, the best version of the facts, as Carl Bernstein would say, great journalism, and not just politics, but when we do politics, we need to represent both sides."

From an event-planning perspective, the setup of the town hall didn't allow for the best version of facts to be presented. That may be an olive branch for Trump supporters, but it isn't the best journalism.

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