It’s easy enough to understand why Donald Trump felt he needed to do a “town hall” with CNN. Trump can barely string two sentences together these days without going completely off script and humiliating himself – no doubt why his handlers have mostly kept him out of the public eye over the past year. But now he’s been criminally indicted, he’s about to be indicted again, he’s increasingly being seen as a criminal defendant and not a candidate in a future election, and he has to try to find a way to change that. This town hall was a bad idea, but it was the kind of low percentage play that a desperate and nearly finished Trump had to try.
It’s far less clear why CNN felt it needed to do this town hall with Trump. New CNN boss Chris Licht has invoked a strategy of dumping the network’s most popular faces and shifting the content heavily in favor of right wing lies. It’s seemingly been an attempt at courting Fox News’ audience. But instead it’s saddled CNN with historically low ratings. This strategy has been a total failure, and Licht is already on his last legs. Fully getting in bed with Trump for a “town hall” was precisely the kind of move that Licht couldn’t afford to make, because there was zero upside, and the real risk of permanently alienating what’s left of CNN’s audience.
In any case, Trump’s desperate desire to portray himself as a candidate, along with Licht’s desperate desire to fail, added up to one of the most hideously odious “town halls” in presidential electoral history. Host Kaitlan Collins (who conveniently used to work for right wing propaganda outlet Daily Caller) allowed Trump to walk all over her. And the audience appeared to consist entirely of die hard Trump supporters, meaning it wasn’t a town hall, it was a Trump rally.
Trump spent the entire time smirking, blowing off questions, making incoherent remarks, lying about the 2020 election, and – bizarrely yet predictably – attacking E. Jean Carroll. It was ugly enough that you half seriously wondered if Trump would end up owing Carroll another five million by the time the night was over. And now it’s fair to wonder if Chris Licht will still be employed at CNN by the end of the week. This is the kind of singular debacle that can get a failing newcomer fired much quicker than they otherwise would have.
The thing is, everyone knew this town hall was going to be a disaster. MSNBC scheduled Rachel Maddow to appear as an on-air guest, on her night off, while the CNN town hall was going on. MSNBC guessed that regular CNN viewers would be so disgusted by this town hall, they’d end up switching to MSNBC partway through it, and that guess was probably correct. By the end of the evening, nearly every trending topic on social media was some kind of condemnation of CNN. It was that kind of debacle.
And yet for all the ugly blows that CNN took for this town hall, there was never any possible upside. Even if ratings did end up being strong, an hour’s worth of ratings aren’t worth much. And for all the longtime viewers that this debacle chased away, there was no chance of gaining any new viewers. Everyone in the industry knows that you can only court right wing viewers by telling them the lies they want to hear 100% of the time, and not merely the 50% or 67% of the time that CNN’s new formula is based on.
Nor will this help Donald Trump any. Again, there’s a reason his handlers have spent the past two-plus years trying to keep him out of the public eye as much as possible. There’s a reason his handlers have convinced him not to go back onto Twitter, even with his account reinstated. They know that the more Trump puts himself out there, and the more voters in the middle see that he’s just as nasty as ever and now fairly senile on top of it, the more quickly Trump’s 2024 facade will fade. Of course it’ll all be over for Trump once the DOJ truly gets ahold of him. But Trump’s sudden desperation to put himself out there, after two years of hiding, is only going to help hasten his downfall before the DOJ can even finish him off.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report