Disgraced former President Donald Trump appeared Wednesday night for a prime-time campaign town hall event on CNN, during which the live audience cheered his continued lies about the 2020 election, applauded his pledge to pardon January 6 insurrectionists, and laughed as he described sexual assault.
Moderator Kaitlan Collins addressed him as “Mr. President” throughout the event, even though the title currently belongs to President Joe Biden, and she failed to fact-check many of his various blatant lies, including a heinous claim about infanticide that CNN debunked years ago. When Collins did push back on Trump’s flagrant lies, the fawning audience rallied to his defense with laughter and applause.
The entire display was so debasing to the network, Fox News gloated about it.
The fault for this debacle lies with CNN itself.
The network should have known better, especially after stocking the live audience with Republican primary voters in New Hampshire. That same demographic previously nominated election-denier candidates during the 2022 midterm elections, and Trump himself in 2016, so it was obvious from the start that they would provide a receptive crowd for his never-ending trail of falsehoods.
In one telling moment, Collins seemed to temporarily stump Trump with a persistent rebuttal to his false claims about mishandling classified documents, but the audience laughed and applauded when he personally insulted her in response:
It was also clear in advance that Trump would use CNN as a rhetorical punching bag for his own benefit. Tuesday morning, he posted on his social media site that he would be appearing on CNN, “because they are rightfully desperate to get those fantastic (TRUMP!) ratings once again.”
When CNN first announced the town hall event last week, the network indicated that it would treat Trump like any other candidate, despite the unprecedented nature of his candidacy and his previous tenure in office — among other things, he spurred an insurrection to stay in power. In addition, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav declared the company was “happy that he’s on our network” because he’s the front-runner for the Republican nomination, seemingly casting Trump and other extremist Republicans as equal voices on both sides of a political debate.
Former District of Columbia police officer Michael Fanone, who is now a CNN contributor, wrote a scathing piece on the network’s various rationales for hosting Trump. His guest piece published at Rolling Stone on Wednesday was titled “CNN Is Hosting a Town Hall for a Guy Who Tried to Get Me Killed,” referring to Fanone’s own experiences when he was brutally attacked by insurrectionists on January 6, 2021. (By his own admission, Fanone actually supported Trump in 2016, but he later became disillusioned with the former president.)
“Putting him onstage, having him answer questions like a normal candidate who didn’t get people killed in the process of trying to end the democracy he’s attempting to once again run, normalizes what Trump did,” Fanone wrote. “It sends a message that attempting a coup is just part of the process; that accepting election results is a choice; and that there are no consequences, in the media or in politics or anywhere else, for rejecting them.”
Maybe CNN didn’t set out to produce an hour of pro-Trump propaganda, but that's exactly what it did. Other media outlets need to learn a lesson from this spectacle and realize that Trump is unlike any other candidate in American history — whatever the rules used to be, they don't apply to him or his radicalized base of Republican primary voters.