"A defense lawyer's nightmare": How Trump's CNN town hall answers are a "prosecutor's dream"

On the Mar-a-Lago classified docs case: "He basically admitted knowing he had the documents"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 17, 2023 7:07AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Wednesday, CNN gave Donald Trump, the traitor ex-president, confirmed sexual predator, the first former president to be indicted and arrested for allegedly committing a felony, who is also an obvious sociopath and fascist, more than an hour during prime time for a fake town hall meeting.

This is the same man who sent out the following Mother's Day "greeting" via his Truth Social disinformation platform on Sunday:

Happy Mother's Day to ALL, in particular the Mothers, Wives and Lovers of the Radical Left Fascists, Marxists, and Communists who are doing everything within their power to destroy and obliterate our once great Country.

Please make these complete Lunatics and Maniacs Kinder, Gentler, Softer and, most importantly, Smarter, so that we can, quickly, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!

Quite predictably, during his fake "town hall" meeting Trump demagogued, lied, bullied, threatened, and put on a fascist performance to the great approval of the studio audience (which consisted of Republicans and right-leaning independents). CNN knew and expected Donald Trump to be his true horrible self. In fact, CNN chairman Chris Licht reportedly told Donald Trump to have "a good conversation and have fun". To that end, the "town hall" was by design a spectacle, a political car wreck.

CNN's decision would prove to be very lucrative: the Trump "town hall" was watched by millions of people. Trump continues to be a rating-booster and money-maker which means that the other news networks will take notice and likely give him more attention and not less. Once again, the "media" in the "news media" is business and profits.

The 2024 presidential season is in its early stages and if CNN's fake town hall special is any indication, instead of telling the objective truth about Trump and Republicans representing an existential threat to American democracy, the mainstream news media is going to "horse race", "both sides", "balance", "objectivity", and "fairness" the country and its people into another Trump presidency and all of the (even worse) horrors he has promised to unleash.

In what is the second of a two-part series, I asked a range of experts for their insights about what the Trump CNN town hall spectacle really means, what it reflects (or not) about the American news media, and where we are in the Trumpocene and the larger democracy crisis as the 2024 presidential season is gaining focus.

Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M, and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."

As someone who has studied Trump's rhetoric for the past eight years, I expected that Trump would use the CNN opportunity to spread lies and conspiracy, to spin the jury's decision against him in the civil case with E. Jean Carroll, and to attack his opposition. Trump has never allowed himself to be held accountable for his words or actions, I didn't think Kaitlan Collins would succeed where everyone else had failed. Trump uses the kind of rhetorical tricks that would disqualify a high school or collegiate debater in a debate tournament, the kind of rhetorical tricks that used to be disqualifying for anyone seeking political office. Trump uses rhetorical tricks to violate the rules and norms of debate, just like he violates the rules and norms of democracy.

"I so disagree with folks who say CNN shouldn't have held this town hall. Trump is evil. You can't ignore evil."

If there was any "news value" in what happened on CNN it was in learning that Trump hasn't changed and that Republican voters will continue to cheer him on. The audience laughed and clapped for Trump as he attacked his sexual assault victim and as he called Collins a "nasty woman." The audience of Republican voters clearly attended the town hall hoping that Trump would do just that--that he would "own the libs" and "own CNN" and that he would act as a demagogue. The audience wasn't objective or neutral, it was partisan for Trump.

My main takeaway after watching the CNN debacle is that this is a dangerous time for democracy in America. The media are unable or unwilling to hold Trump accountable. Trump is very skilled at using the media's platform to undermine the media--and democracy. Political scientists tell us that the party must hold its own members accountable to democratic norms, but the Republican Party has been unable or unwilling to do so with Trump. In 2020 the American voters held Trump accountable for his failed presidency, but he refuses to admit that he lost, thereby denying the people the power to decide the election. Donald Trump is an unaccountable leader, a dangerous demagogue--and he shouldn't be given a platform to attack democracy.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast  "White Flag with Joe Walsh."

I expected the town hall to be a friendly audience for Trump, he's running in the Republican primary, so of course the audience should be Republican voters. I expected Trump to be his usual engaging, entertaining, ignorant, cruel, and dishonest self. I expected Kaitlan Collins to ask tough questions, to focus on January 6th and Trump's legal issues, and I expected the debate to overall be a win-win for everyone - Trump, CNN, and the American people. And, generally, that's how it played out. Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be President, and this town hall simply reminded everyone of that. I did expect Trump to pivot away from the "rigged election" bullshit more often and focus on Biden and moving forward, but he's Trump, it's all about him, he's always the victim, and that's what he focused on. I think CNN performed a public service. Trump will probably be the nominee, he must be exposed for who he is at every single opportunity. And that's what CNN did.

I so disagree with folks who say CNN shouldn't have held this town hall. Trump is evil. You can't ignore evil. Not if you want to defeat it. You have to expose it, confront it, fight against it, in order to defeat it. That's all CNN did...expose the evil that is Trump. I mean, he's the leader of one of America's two major political parties, he will be the GOP nominee, and he has a decent chance to be President again. OF COURSE, the media must give him a platform. But what the media must do is expose him when they give him that platform - call out his lies, fact check him, call out his bigotry, his authoritarianism, his corrupt and criminal activity, etc. And I think CNN did a pretty good job of that. Some people are upset that it was a partisan town hall format, so it felt like a Trump rally. Tough. He's running to be the GOP nominee. Of course, the audience should be Republican. And the laughing and cheering they did at all the cruel dishonest things he said exposes my former political party for what it is - a cruel, anti-democratic cult. The country needs to see that as often as possible too, and CNN showed the country that the other night.

The left needs to quit whining and quit complaining about CNN. They need to face the facts: one of our two major political parties is an anti-democratic cult. The media should not ignore that party. The media must expose that party. And that's all CNN did. Then it's up to the American people to decide.

In the end, CNN performed a public service for a general election electorate. This is the group that cannot afford to look the other way. This is the group that must confront the evil of Trump, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it might be. And this is the group that must get up off of their ass come November 2024. Constant exposure to Trump will help get them up off of their ass. Bring on many, many more Trump interviews and town halls!

Federico Finchelstein is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of several books, including "From Fascism to Populism in History." His most recent book is "A Brief History of Fascist Lies."

As the history of fascism shows, fascist leaders use the repetition and amplification of big lies to attack the sources of real information. Their aim is to replace reality with their propaganda and independent media always stands in the way.

Trump replicates the same strategy even using real media to spread lies. Mainstream media should know better. What CNN did (with its so-called "town hall") represents a dangerous move towards the legitimation and amplification of lies. But this is not new, and sadly it is to be expected. There is a refusal to learn from past mistakes. This is partly how Trump was able to win the presidency in the 2016 presidential election. He was enabled by many sectors of the media. He was given attention he did not deserve as an extremist candidate.

For these types of wannabe fascist leaders, the media represents a danger to their propaganda efforts, and they try to use it as a tool to manipulate, not one to inform.

In search of attention, CNN allowed itself (during the "town hall") to be used and manipulated, rendering itself useless as a source for real information.

Mark Jacob is the former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune.

When the CNN town hall with Trump was announced, I expected it to be a disaster for the news industry and the American public. And it was.

But I was surprised about one thing: The questions were tougher than I anticipated. The problem was host Kaitlan Collins didn't demand answers to those tough questions. Trump was allowed to wriggle out of any interrogation he didn't like. And the problem with a live show featuring a professional liar like Trump is that he can lie faster than you can correct him. That's why it's better to do taped interviews where you can insert fact-checking and evidence later. But even in a live show, CNN could have shown video and social media posts to prove Trump was lying. They didn't. I think they made a conscious decision not to be that confrontational because they didn't want him to walk out. They made a programming decision when they should have made a journalism decision.  

I wish I could say CNN learned something here. But frankly, the execs at CNN acted a lot like they did in 2016, pretending they were under some kind of obligation to give a platform to a con artist.

Shan Wu is a former federal prosecutor who served as counsel to Attorney General Reno. 

I fully expected Trump to maintain his denials and fabrications but did not realize the audience would end up being vehement Trump fans. I did not expect Kaitlan Collins or any moderator to rein in Trump because there is not much a moderator or journalist can do when the subject is simply spewing lies – if they engage in argument then they are doing just that – engaging in argument.  The most they can do is to terminate the event or interview. After seeing it I actually thought there was some value for the country and Republicans to see exactly how Trump was continuing to espouse the same lies and denials.  However, it would have been much more valuable if the audience had been genuinely independent or undecided which I think would have resulted in hard questions to him about how he can continue to maintain his lies and misogynistic treatment of women.  This likely would have yielded greater value.  For the future, any such town halls need to have actual undecided voters not ones just wanting to attend a Trump rally. But to make sure the coverage is valuable and not simply a campaign rally the format needs either to be pointed questions with no audience or an audience that is not a bunch of rallygoers.  To the extent CNN did not realize what kind of audience they were getting then they should acknowledge that error.

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The criticism of journalists and news organizations like CNN for giving Trump a platform by covering him misses the mark. Expecting a news organization to select who to cover on the basis of who they do not want to promote is no different from selecting to cover those they want to promote. But when a subject being covered begins to spew hate speech, speech inciting violence or misogyny or racism then the news organization should cut them off during that particular interview or event or even debate. News organizations cannot control what subjects say, but they can make the decisions about when not to broadcast specific statements about specific issues. Trump is newsworthy but the news needs to be able to make the hard calls and open themselves up to criticism for deciding what (not who necessarily) is worthy of broadcasting.

Trump's remarks about his possession of classified documents were a defense lawyer's nightmare and a prosecutor's dream since he basically admitted knowing he had the documents and they belonged to him. Similarly, his pledge to issue pardons to Proud Boys and other convicted Jan 6 defendants makes it very hard for him to distance himself from the violence of that day in the future.

Dr. Mark Goulston is a leading psychiatrist, former FBI hostage negotiation trainer, and the author of the bestsellers "Just Listen" and "Talking to 'Crazy".

Donald Trump has sacrificed being respected, trusted and people having confidence in him for being adored and adulated. I believe he deeply covets being respected by legitimately powerful people, but he doesn't realize or accept that such people believe you have to earn those through your track record of deeds done, not just words and demands for it spoken. And if he can't garner that respect, trust and confidence, he will name call those people to try to diminish their legitimacy and convince his followers and the world that their opinions don't matter. It's like the infantile response some people have about being fired by saying, "You can't fire me, because I quit."

Given that he was planning to have an audience of Republicans in a somewhat insular state like New Hampshire who were probably loyal to him on a station, CNN, which has a less favorable view of him, I expected the CNN facilitator to try to reign him in and not be able to. That is exactly what happened. I think it was overly optimistic to expect to direct the interview especially since the Republican audience was in a more intimate setting and would love being thrown "red meat" through his hyperbole, sarcasm, dismissive facial expressions, which they appeared to do.

I also think it was naive to expect the audience to see through his antics and want to hear thoughtful and direct responses to any questions he didn't want to answer. It seems as if CNN was attempting to score a ratings coup, which it probably did, and which only served to diminish people's regard for the station.

Trump's M.O. is always to keep interviewers - who might be getting too close to a question he doesn't want to answer - on the defensive by pushing them to have to manage their frustration and anger and if it were a male interviewer, their rage. Managing frustration, anger and especially rage are very difficult to manage and trying to do so can make it difficult to stay calm and focused and holding the person doing it to you accountable (remember smiling on the surface Jeb Bush during the 2016 debates, smiling on the outside and seething on the inside). That is because there is something that goes on in the interviewer's mind that I refer to as the "outrage engrage" bifurcate, where after someone like Trump does something outrageous (such as telling Kaitlan Collins that she was a nasty person) our knee jerk reaction is to become enraged afterwards which makes it's extremely difficult to concentrate and stay focused.

What is going on in that person's mind is something referred to as an amygdala hijack, which serves as an emotional sentinel in our brain and when overloaded it signals the brain to shift blood flow away from the thinking upper human brain (pre-frontal cortex) into the non-thinking lower reptilian survival fight or flight brain and makes it difficult to think. The best defense against this as an interviewer is to let someone like Trump bait you, then pause for a couple seconds (which will make them nervous that their provocation didn't work), and then calmly say, "That sounded really important, would you run that by me again in a calmer and normal voice, because the way you just said it triggered me and made it difficult to listen and consider what you just said and it did sound important."

In all likelihood, they may come back at you and say, "That just shows how stupid you are," to which you again pause and say, "That might be so, but it did sound important because you were so passionate about, so please do say it to me again in a calmer and normal voice so I can make sure I don't miss it." If they won't let go of baiting you, you can respond, "Well looks like I'm not going to get what you said, let's move on to the next topic."

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Big Lie Cnn Democracy Crisis Disinformation Donald Trump Fascism Interview Joe Walsh Propaganda Shan Wu