CNN has come in for plenty of criticism for granting Donald Trump a town hall platform for more than an hour Wednesday night. Despite host Kaitlan Collins’s best efforts to fact-check the former president, he produced a predictable steamroller of false and misleading claims.
But there’s something to be said for challenging and pressing Trump on uneasy topics, which rarely happens. And the event at the very least reinforced the extremism that Trump 2024 embodies.
Frequently, this came in the form of his repeatedly declining to take positions on issues upon which the American people have clearly decided. But sometimes he went further, embracing unpopular positions that could complicate the 2024 election for him and the Republican Party.
Trump re-upped and expanded on his previous suggestions that he would pardon Jan. 6 defendants, saying he would “most likely” pardon a “large portion” of them. He even left open the possibility of pardoning Proud Boys who were convicted of the historic charge of seditious conspiracy just last week.
While Republicans have increasingly adopted a more sympathetic view of Jan. 6, a poll last year showed Americans opposed pardoning rioters 68 percent to 20 percent.
Some particularly remarkable Trump nonanswers came on the subject of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Asked whether he even wanted Ukraine to win, Trump repeatedly punted — an answer in line with a series of past sympathetic comments about Vladimir Putin and Russia. “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” Trump said. “I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people.”
While many Republicans are skeptical of the United States spending more money on Ukraine’s defense, the question of who Americans want to win is clear. Recent polling shows more than three-fourths of Americans regard Russia as an enemy, while a similar number regard Ukraine as an ally. And a February poll showed two-thirds of Americans want Ukraine to win, compared to just 8 percent who want Russia to win.
Trump also repeatedly declined to commit to providing Ukraine with weapons. A recent poll showed Americans supported sending weapons by a 19-point margin.
And he declined to call Putin a war criminal — something 80 percent of Americans and 76 percent of Republicans say Putin is, according to a March poll. (Trump explained, “If you say he’s a war criminal, it’s going to be a lot tougher to make a deal to get this thing stopped.”)
Trump left open the possibility of reinstituting family separations at the southern border. Asked whether he would do it again, Trump defended it by saying that “when you have that policy, people don’t come.” Pressed, he repeatedly demurred but said, “Well, here’s — we have to save our country, all right?”
Polling on this policy back in 2018 regularly showed two-thirds of Americans opposed it.
Trump also suggested that not only should the GOP hold out in the debt ceiling negotiations for spending cuts, but that it should allow a default if it doesn’t get them. “If they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default,” Trump said. He also downplayed what that would mean, saying it would be “really psychological more than anything else.”
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed just 26 percent embraced Trump’s hard-line position, while 58 percent said debt payment and federal spending cuts should be handled separately. A previous Post-ABC poll showed just 17 percent of Americans echoed Trump’s lack of concern about a default, while 8 in 10 had significant concerns — 53 percent were “very concerned,” and 29 percent were “somewhat concerned.”
(Trump was also confronted with his past comments as president saying there should not be negotiations over the debt ceiling. Asked why he’s saying something different now, he admitted it was “because now I’m not president.”)
Trump defended taking classified documents upon leaving the White House — for which he is under federal investigation. “Just so you understand, I had every right to do it,” he said. “I didn’t make a secret of it.” The American people disagree. In a poll last month, only 16 percent of those surveyed said he did nothing wrong, while 47 percent say he broke the law, and 17 percent said he did something unethical.
Last and most significant was the hard line on the “stolen election,” or the “big lie.” Trump zeroed in on this from the jump on Wednesday night. “That was a rigged election, and it’s a shame that we had to go through it,” he said. A poll last year showed just 13 percent completely agreed that the election was stolen from Trump, while 52 percent completely disagreed. Two-thirds of Americans at least somewhat disagreed. And we saw in the 2022 election how this brand of election-denialism can cost the GOP.
Trump also said that his vice president, Mike Pence, “made a mistake” by not helping him overturn the election on Jan. 6. A poll last year showed Americans disagreed that Pence had that power, 72 percent to 17 percent. Even when the question invoked Trump by name, Republicans disagreed with what it described as the “view of Trump” on the matter, 52-36.
While Trump’s allies hailed his performance on Wednesday night, some critics in his party expressed worry about what the interview has wrought.
“President Trump’s performance tonight had plenty of fun fodder for his biggest fans,” tweeted GOP consultant Matt Whitlock. “But [it] was toxic nuclear waste for the moderates and independents he (and Republicans everywhere) should be winning as Biden collapses.”
CNN CEO Chris Licht, meanwhile, defended his network’s airing the town hall by reportedly saying Thursday morning that “there is so much that we learned last night of what another Trump presidency” would look like. There’s some truth there, and it wasn’t a pretty picture for the GOP’s efforts to recover from three straight poor, Trump-led elections.