WASHINGTON, May 11 (AP): During a contentious CNN town hall on Wednesday night, former President Donald Trump dug in on his lies about the 2020 election, downplayed the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and repeatedly insulted the woman whom a civil jury this week found him liable of sexually abusing and defaming.
Trump, returning to the network after years of acrimony, also refused to say whether he wants Ukraine to win the war against Russian aggression and said the U.S. “might as well” default on its debt obligation, despite the potentially devastating economic consequences.
The live, televised event — held in early-voting New Hampshire — underscored the challenges of fact-checking Trump in real time. The former president was cheered on and applauded by an audience of Republican and unaffiliated voters who plan to vote in the GOP primary, as moderator Kaitlan Collins sometimes struggled to correct the record as Trump steamrolled with untrue statements. “You are a nasty person,” he snapped at one point.
The event also highlighted what is perhaps Trump’s most fundamental challenge as he emerged as the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination to take on President Joe Biden again.
While Trump’s tone and divisive statements often thrill Republican primary crowds, he has so far done little to expand his appeal among the moderates and independents who soured on him in 2020 and will be crucial to winning the general election.
Indeed, Trump on Wednesday repeatedly doubled down on his lies that the 2020 election had been “rigged,” even though state and federal election officials, his own campaign and White House aides, and dozens of courts, including Republican judges, have said there is no evidence to support his claims.
He also displayed no remorse for what happened on Jan. 6, when a mob of his supporters violently stormed the Capitol in a bid to halt the certification of Biden’s win. He excused his delayed response that day — he was silent for more than three hours as the carnage unfolded — pulling out a printout of his tweeted timeline as a form of defense.
Instead, he lashed out at the Black police officer who shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbitt, calling him a “thug,” despite a Justice Department finding that the shooting was justified. And he said he is inclined to pardon “a large portion” of the rioters charged in the attack.
More than 670 people have been convicted of crimes related to that day, including some found guilty of seditious conspiracy or assaulting police officers.
Trump also rejected a suggestion that he apologize to his former vice president, Mike Pence, who was targeted by the mob after Trump wrongly insisted that Pence had the power to overturn the election results.
“I don’t feel he was in any danger,” he said. In fact, Trump said, Pence was the one who “did something wrong.”
He would not commit to accepting the results of the next election, either, saying he would do so only if he feels “it’s an honest election” — as he said before the 2020 election.
The primetime forum — the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign and Trump’s first interview appearance on CNN since before he was elected president in 2016 — drew suspicion from both sides of the political divide as soon as it was announced.
Democrats questioned whether a man who continues to spread lies about his 2020 election loss should be given the airtime. Conservatives wondered why Trump would appear on — and potentially give a ratings bump to — a network he has continually disparaged.
The stakes were raised considerably Tuesday after jurors in New York found Trump had sexually abused and defamed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll nearly three decades ago, though they rejected her claim that he raped her. The jury awarded her $5 million in damages.
Trump, at Wednesday’s event, called the case “fake news” and insisted he didn’t know Carroll, even as he attacked her in deeply personal terms. “She’s a wack job,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Trump has generally not reacted well when pressed onstage about his behavior toward women, most notably during the first Republican presidential debate of 2015, when he sparred with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly and later accused her of having “blood coming out of her wherever.” Carroll is one of more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual assault or harassment over the years; Trump has denied the allegations.