Donald Trump won the first debate of the 2024 presidential cycle Wednesday night, and it wasn’t even close.
What debate, you ask? Then you didn’t watch CNN’s broadcast from St. Anselm College, which was billed as a town hall, but was instead a head-to-head brawl between Trump and the network’s Kaitlan Collins.
Instead of questions from the crowd, most of the time was spent with Collins grilling Trump at length on issues like his 2020 election denialism and his actions on January 6, 2021. She also frequently interrupted him to declare his answers false, particularly on the 2020 race.
Trump, of course, continued to maintain — as he has for years– that the election was “rigged” and “unless you’re a very stupid person,” you know it, he told her. At times she appeared genuinely taken aback.
So she kept pressing him about his “false claims” regarding 2020, and he kept responding with talk about ballot boxes being stuffed in Pennsylvania and voter fraud investigations in Wisconsin.
At one point, an exasperated Collins insisted, “The election was not rigged, Mr. President. You can’t keep saying that all night.”
But of course, he can. And he did. Because he’s Donald Trump. And CNN put him on TV, live and in prime time — with a West Coast re-broadcast later that night.
The question of the night, asked by both horrified Democrats and dispirited, anti-Donald Republicans, was, “What the hell was CNN thinking?”
Are the people who run CNN unfamiliar with his work? What did CNN chief Chris Licht expect Trump to do — wilt under the unrelenting fact-checking from Collins and blurt out, “You’re right! I confess! I know I lost fair and square. My entire political reason for existence is a lie!”
The town hall debate may have been entertaining, but it left the local Republicans in the audience extremely frustrated. Speaking to NHJournal afterward, several attendees said they resented Collins making the event about her and not about the voters who have to pick the next nominee.
“We were let down. There were a lot of good questions to ask, but that reporter [Collins] kept going too much back into the past,” said Howard Ray of Lyndeborough, N.H. He said he and his family know all about Trump’s behavior, and they have other priorities. “My wife and I home-school, and I wanted to hear him answer a question about school choice.”
Asked after the event to name the best question of the night, Rachel Romero of Winchester, Mass., replied. “I’m not sure I have one. It was a debate most of the time between Trump and [Collins].” Romero said she would have liked to have heard a more direct answer to the abortion question, another topic Collins hit Trump on repeatedly.
“She made herself the star of the show,” said Steve Matthews of Manchester. “She just kept going after him on issues the liberal media cares about. I was really disappointed. I wanted to hear from the audience what their questions were.”
But CNN’s town hall wasn’t for Republican primary voters. It was for CNN viewers who find it cathartic to listen to Trump get called a liar yet again — something that happens a million times a day on cable news without a town hall. It certainly had no impact on Trump, who ran rings around Collins as she struggled to find some way to contain him.
As veteran political analyst Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “Collins keeps trying to debate or refute Trump as he talks over her, and the audience cheers Trump on. It’s more evidence that this is a disastrous format.”
Not for Trump. He could hardly ask for a better setting. Holding a town hall, then having the “moderator” come out swinging reminded Republicans how unfairly the press treats them and their candidates. It also gave Trump the opportunity to walk into the media lion’s den and walk out with a win.
Trump World was gleeful after it was over.
“Smart people are asking: where does DeSantis even go from here? There’s no oxygen for anyone not named Donald J. Trump,” one Trump ally told NHJournal.
A less-than-Trump-friendly GOP strategist had a similar take.
“Donald Trump should thank his team for talking him into doing the town hall. He steamrolled Kaitlan Collins repeatedly, and judging from the response of the audience; they loved it.
“He may not care about suburban moderates, but he doesn’t need to in order to crush the GOP primary field. And he may not even need to in a race against an increasingly feeble and unpopular Joe Biden.”
Biden responded to the CNN event with a bit of snark.
“It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that? If you don’t, pitch in to our campaign,” Biden tweeted.
The obvious retort from about five million Trump fans on Twitter was: OK, Joe — now it’s your turn. When are you spending 90 minutes in a town hall with Tucker Carlson?
Biden won’t, of course. Nobody would ever expect him to. And that’s the subtext of the Trump CNN event that tells the entire story. The idea of a news outlet — including Fox News — treating any Democrat the way Trump was just treated is simply unimaginable. But for Republicans, it’s to be expected.
That’s why, his campaign argues, they need Donald Trump.