The last time a president was engaged in a real primary campaign was 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was challenged by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Thanks to the advantage of incumbency, Carter was renominated — only to lose the general election. In part because of that, subsequent presidents have had to survive only one primary, with their parties helping to clear the path to renomination to avoid spending the summer before the general election weakening their candidate with infighting.
That wasn’t enough to get Trump reelected in 2020. So here he is, trying again, a guy who held the job previously now trying to get it back.
On Wednesday night, that brought him to New Hampshire for a “town hall” event hosted by CNN. For a bit over an hour, Trump did what Trump does. But the atmosphere was not sober or thoughtful. It was raucous, energized, obviously allied with Trump. And why not? More than 365,000 New Hampshirites voted three years ago to give Trump a second term in office. Pick a group of 200 residents of the state who say they plan to vote in the Republican primary and you’re going to get nearly 200 people who have voted for Trump before.
There were a lot of mistakes involved in giving Trump the platform he and his followers enjoyed on Wednesday. Even just structurally, it made no sense. It was ostensibly an opportunity for voters in a state to hear from Trump — a state where Trump already leads the Republican field by at least 20 points in most polling. But then it was also broadcast, live, to the entire nation? If this was a necessary component of adjudicating issues of concern to people in New Hampshire, why did people in Nevada need to see it?
It was also predictable that Trump would offer false claims at extended length and without being held to account. Three years ago, CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale outlined how media outlets could ensure that they weren’t helping Trump spread false information. The town hall violated those recommendations in about every possible way.
From the very first moments of the television show, Trump was in control.
“Why should Americans put you back in the White House?” host Kaitlan Collins offered as her first question.
“Because we did fantastically,” Trump replied. He then immediately launched into various hoary arguments aimed at suggesting that he didn’t actually lose in 2020.
“When you look at that result, and when you look at what happened during that election,” he said, “unless you’re a very stupid person, you see what happened —”
Here, CNN’s own transcript interjects a note about the audience: “[LAUGHTER].” The crowd loved Trump’s suggestion that people who accept an obvious if inconvenient reality are idiots.
Trump continued, claiming the election was “rigged,” which it was not. There’s little point even here in debunking everything he said on this point, which The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler has already done anyway.
But we should note what happened when Collins tried to interrupt the fire hose to push back on a point. She noted that he and his allies had lost scores of legal challenges and then asked if he would “publicly acknowledge that you did lose the 2020 election” — again, after Trump had already made clear that he wouldn’t.
How did Trump answer the question?
“Let me just go on,” he said, brushing the question aside. He then continued on the same path, transitioning into elevating the baseless claims made in the widely debunked film “2000 Mules.”
Then he transitioned to more general complaints: “Our country has gone to hell. Our borders are bad. Our military has been bad.” Taxes, inflation, America is now “in many ways a Third World country.” Etc.
This was largely the pattern for the hour. Trump riffing, mostly making the same claims he has long made, as Kessler notes. Collins at times trying to interject to correct him — at which point he would at times excoriate her, to the audience’s amusement.
It’s critical to understand that this, more than anything, was the benefit for Trump. He does not care if you fact-check him; Kessler and his team invented a new category for misinformation to accommodate Trump’s complete indifference to having people tell him that what he’s saying is false.
Trump doesn’t even care that he “made news” with his answers about Ukraine or a federal ban on abortion. He’s always approached policy the way he approaches facts: He says what he thinks he should say in the moment, and he supports what he thinks he should support. His approach is always that of the salesman. He says what he needs to say in order to make the deal, and, if those words need to be fixed later, he’ll say what he needs to say then, too.
Trump’s desired outcome is to attack and undermine the entire system because, by breaking it down, he gains more power. He used CNN on Wednesday the way he used the Republican Party in 2016: as a source of power he could disrupt and repurpose. The Republican Party, broken by Trump, eventually had little choice but to let Trump use its power. With this town hall, CNN did the same thing.
There’s been a lot of deserved attention paid to Trump’s repeated disparagement of E. Jean Carroll during the town hall, a day after a jury ordered him to pay Carroll $5 million for defaming her — and, of course, for sexually assaulting her. Trump overstates his wealth, but it’s safe to say that an award for damages in that amount was insufficient disincentive relative to hearing the applause of his supporters in the room and to having a national platform to elevate the mockery of Carroll that was otherwise restricted to his desiccated social media platform.
In fact, this was the topic that proves the point. Democrats, speaking to reporters after the town hall, tried to spin the event as useful in that Trump gave them lots of clips that could be slotted into ads. They were not otherwise lacking for such clips; what did Trump say about Carroll on Wednesday that couldn’t be extracted from his deposition in that case? Who gained from Trump’s comments except for Trump and the television channel that was plugging the show?
The last time he had a combination of platform and audience similar to the one he enjoyed on Wednesday, Trump was giving a speech on the Ellipse outside the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. And many of the things he said then about the 2020 election he repeated, when given the opportunity, on CNN.
If you lend him your power, he will use your power the way he wants to use it, including against you.