Shortly after former President Donald Trump wrapped up his controversial CNN town hall, President Biden tweeted out a de facto campaign message: "It's simple, folks," he said. "Do you want four more years of that?"
"That," of course, being the former president's 70-minute appearance before likely Republican voters on a stage in New Hampshire, an unruly and falsehood-filled event during which he spewed lies about the 2020 election, praised rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and dodged questions about whether he wanted Ukraine to win its war against Russia. He mocked former advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, who just days prior won a defamation lawsuit against him, and derided the town hall's host, CNN journalist Kaitlan Collins, as a "nasty person." The audience, meanwhile, chuckled and laughed along. "I can't believe anyone thought this was a good idea," one CNN staffer told The Washington Post. "It was an unmitigated disaster," added a former network executive, speaking with Insider. "Kaitlan had no support in the room. They were mocking her." Even team Trump was shocked by the spectacle, which marked his first appearance on the network since the 2016 election: "They can't believe he is getting an hour on CNN with an audience that cheers his every line and laughs at his every joke," reported The New York Times' Jonathan Swan.
Though the network may have got precisely what it wanted out of the event (ratings, buzz, and an olive branch for conservative viewers, posits journalist Jemele Hill), it has nonetheless come under intense fire for elevating the former president's lies on a national scale. Many critics have deemed Trump's appearance more damaging than illuminating, something more akin to a supercharged rally than an informative town hall. In the end, was this high-profile experiment an irredeemable mess, or might there have been some value to be found amongst the chaos?
At the very least …
The former president's "torturous" town hall was a show of "toe-curlingly bad television," David Smith writes for The Guardian. And though it "backfired horribly," it did "perform the service of forcing the American public" — some members of which were in the room, cheering Trump on — "to look at itself in the mirror." Additionally, Trump's Republican challengers might use the event as a reminder of the former president's ability to dodge, evade, and poke fun at his opponents to the point where he almost discredits and embarrasses them, adds Michael Brendan Dougherty in an otherwise anti-Trump column for National Review. "Most other politicians come to the debate stage as ambitious nerds, needful of approval." Trump, however, "improvises across all 88 keys of the piano in his register." His rivals would do well to remember that.
"To call it a sh-tshow would be generous," said Politico's Playbook, but there was at least one key beneficiary of the night: Joe Biden. "It was quite efficient," one Biden advisor said of the spectacle. "Weeks worth of damning content in one hour."
CNN was "correct to recognize that [Trump] is a relevant, potent political force who cannot be ignored and must be thoroughly vetted," admitted New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni. If voters are debating Biden's mental fitness, shouldn't they also see about Trump's? "THIS is the 2024 Republican presidential primary," agreed ex-CNN journalist Brian Stelter on Twitter. "Look away if you choose, but this is what it's going to be like. Should news outlets sanitize it or stare it in the face?" Indeed, don't blame CNN for hosting an event with the GOP frontrunner, said GOP political strategist Sarah Longwell. "Trump is probably going to be the nominee and we need to be clear-eyed about what we're dealing with."
A total mistake
For others, the upsides of the town hall were either far less obvious or ultimately non-existent. The night was "1000 percent a mistake," one insider told Rolling Stone. "No one [at CNN] is happy." "Yes, some news was made," conceded CNN's own Oliver Darcy. "But for most of the night, the nation's eyes were transfixed on Trump's abuse of the platform that he was given." It's "hard to see how America was served" by that "spectacle of lies."
Former Washington, D.C. police officer Michael Fanone, who was attacked by protesters during the Capitol riot, was far less restrained in his criticism, which he levied in a column titled, "CNN Is Hosting a Town Hall for a Guy Who Tried to Get Me Killed." "I don't believe for one second that this is about journalistic integrity. It's about ratings and money," Fanone wrote. "To me, allowing Trump an open forum on a major television news network is the moral equivalent of putting an AR-15 in the hands of someone mentally unstable. Whether words or bullets — and I have seen firsthand the effects of both — they are equally dangerous in the mouths or hands of those who have shown us time and time again what their true intentions are."
All it took was Trump's ostensible lead in the race for the Republican nomination for CNN to "ignore literally everything else" and give him a platform, writes Justin Peters for Slate. The misguided session was simultaneously a flashback to Trump's presidency, a preview of what's to come, and a "conclusive repudiation of CNN CEO Chris Licht's doomed plan to restore the network's fortunes by tacking to the imagined middle."
It seems CNN has learned nothing from its past, posits Mehdi Hasan for MSNBC. Just seven years removed from its 2016 coverage, on which many pundits have at least partially blamed Trump's rise, the network afforded "the twice-impeached and newly indicted ex-president" another chance to quickly and easily spread falsehoods and misinformation. "What did CNN or Collins think would happen? Did they really have no plan to deal with Trump's belligerent nonsense? Did they really learn nothing and forget nothing?"