Former President Donald Trump returned to non-conservative primetime television on Wednesday evening thanks to a CNN town hall — and the contentious, roughly hour-long event looked like 2016 again, amped up to 11.
If you’re a reporter like me who follows Trump on Truth Social, attends his rallies, and watches his right-wing media interviews, much of what he said wasn’t new or surprising.
But that’s exactly why the town hall felt like such a major event: Outside of his MAGA base, Trump’s daily pronouncements have been effectively invisible to large swaths of the country, even to many Republicans who are less engaged in day-to-day politics. This night was a post-January 6th Trump being reintroduced to mainstream media — and their audience — in an unfiltered way for the first time since he left office, with unpredictable consequences.
The timing of the event also meant there was a large list of pent-up topics that moderator Kaitlan Collins had to clear, all while interrupting to add fact checks in front of a cheering crowd that was on Trump’s side by design — they applauded when he called her a “nasty person” at one point. Here were some of the highlights.
Trump remained defiant more than two years after a group of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. He said he did not feel that former Vice President Mike Pence was owed an apology over the day, maintaining that “he did something wrong” and “should’ve put the votes back to the state legislatures.”
Collins and Trump sparred over the topic for a time, particularly over the timeline of Trump’s response to the riot, and at one point the former president called it “a beautiful day” while in the same breath maintaining that he “wasn’t involved in it very much.” Trump also addressed the swath of January 6 rioters currently in jail, telling voters that he’s “inclined to pardon many of them” — and “very early on,” for that matter — should he take office again.
As for the group of Proud Boys recently charged and convicted of seditious conspiracy? The former president didn’t rule out pardoning them either. “I’ll have to look at their case, but I will say in Washington, D.C., you cannot get a fair trial, you cannot. Just like in New York City, you can’t get a fair trial either,” Trump lamented.
E. JEAN CARROLL
A day after being found liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll, Trump reiterated many of his prior remarks on the trial, called Carroll “a whack job,” and swore on his children that he never assaulted her.
One moment that could stick around: His latest defense, in detail, of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which he said women “let you” grab them by the genitals “when you’re a star.”
“You would like me to take that back. I can’t take it back because it happens to be true. I’ve said it’s been true for one million years, approximately a million years, perhaps a little bit longer than that,” Trump said.
Trump was pressed repeatedly on abortion, where he said he was “honored” to have appointed the judges who overturned Roe v. Wade, but did not directly answer whether he’d sign federal legislation banning abortion should he become president, or say the number of weeks abortion should be banned. Instead, he vaguely said that he was “looking at a solution that’s going to work.”
“Very complex issue for the country,” Trump said. “You wouldn’t be having a discussion if you weren’t able to get rid of Roe v. Wade.”
Trump argued that Europe should be giving more money amid the Ukraine-Russia war, but wouldn’t say whether he preferred one side to win over the other. The former president said he doesn’t view the situation “in terms of winning and losing” – rather, he “think[s] in terms of getting settled so we stop killing all these people.”
As for whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal? Trump said that discussing the topic now would make it harder “to make a deal.”
The View From Trump World
“Home run,” a Trump advisor texted me shortly after the town hall wrapped up. Jason Miller, another senior advisor on Trump’s team, noted that “many CNN viewers haven’t seen him talk about his policy view on saving America in quite a while” and the event gave him a chance to win over independents by reflecting their criticism of President Biden. The Trump campaign has suggested it will put pressure on Ron DeSantis to prove he can handle similar live interviews with a media network often labeled as unfriendly towards Republicans.
The View From Democrats
“Home run for us too – voters just were reintroduced to the same dangerous man Trump has always been,” one national Democratic operative said. They predicted Trump saying he was proud to overturn Roe v. Wade would come back to haunt him: “That was the clip of the night for a general election.”
The View From A pro-DeSantis super PAC
The pro-DeSantis group Never Back Down had an extremely notable kitchen-sink response on Twitter highlighting Trump discussing “What he did or didn’t do on January 6, 2021,” “Whether he will pardon people who harmed police officers,” “How the 2020 election was rigged,” “Whether he supports terminating parts of the U.S. Constitution,” “The sex abuse case he was just found guilty in,” as well as the Access Hollywood tape, and investigations into his handling of classified documents and efforts to overturn the election. “How does this Make America Great Again?” they asked at the end.
DeSantis — along with almost the entire Republican field — has barely mentioned any of these issues, amid speculation they’re afraid of antagonizing his supporters. Could this be an indicator the gloves are coming off?