Trump’s CNN town hall was a mess of lies – and it was utterly predictable

<span>Photograph: Michael Conroy/AP</span>
Photograph: Michael Conroy/AP

It began and ended in a way that absolutely everyone could have predicted.

Appearing at a CNN town hall, Donald Trump immediately launched into a series of debunked, nonsense claims about election fraud, speaking nearly non-stop for more than five minutes.

Trump steamrolled over attempted interruptions from Kaitlan Collins, the CNN interviewer, as the town hall immediately turned into what many had feared: an opportunity for Trump to lie about dozens of topics, almost completely unfettered, across 60 minutes of primetime television.

From 8pm to just after 9pm, there was never a moment when CNN or Collins had any semblance of control. Trump lied about election fraud and about the January 6 insurrection. He obfuscated on trade tariffs and the aims of abortion advocates, and claimed, wrongly, that he had “finished” the wall.

At one particularly revolting point, Trump mocked E Jean Carroll, the columnist whom a New York jury found he sexually assaulted in a department store.

Related: Donald Trump fields voter questions at CNN town hall a day after sexual abuse verdict

“CNN should be ashamed of themselves,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman, tweeted 20 minutes into the debacle.

“They have lost total control of this ‘town hall’ to again be manipulated into platforming election disinformation, defenses of Jan 6th, and a public attack on a sexual abuse victim.

“The audience is cheering him on and laughing at the host.”

According to CNN, the audience in Manchester, New Hampshire, was made up of “New Hampshire Republicans and undeclared voters”, but in reality the crowd might as well have been scooped up from a Trump campaign rally.

They laughed, whooped and applauded as Trump dished out a stream of his greatest hits.

Whoever had vetted the crowd must have winced as a series of people – almost all white, mostly male – stood up to lob softball questions at the former president about immigration, the economy, about how “state governments and the federal government are going to act to repress gun rights” and whether he would pardon the hundreds of people convicted of crimes on January 6.

Thrust by CNN into Trump’s signature cascade of nonsense, Collins was repeatedly overrun.

In the face of so many lies, it seemed difficult for Collins to know which one to factcheck, and Trump was allowed to present his alternative version of the universe, including on the aims of people attempting to protect a woman’s right to abortion.

“‘You could kill the baby at 9 months or after it was born,’” Clara Jeffery, the editor of Mother Jones magazine, tweeted, quoting a false claim by Trump that Democrats wanted abortion to be legal up until, and apparently after, birth.

“Goes unchallenged. This [is] a journalistic abomination.”

The decision to give a platform to Trump, a man who has something of a track record for lying, was widely criticized before the event. Angelo Carusone, chief executive of Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog, described the town hall as a “transparent attempt to goose their ratings”, while Keith Olbermann, a former MSNBC host, criticized Chris Licht, who took over from Jeff Zucker as chief executive of CNN in 2022.

“I think we can say Chris Licht’s conversion of CNN into a political and journalistic whorehouse is complete,” Olbermann had said.

The looming town hall had led to an incongruous viewing experience throughout Wednesday, particularly in light of a legal finding that Trump sexually abused Carroll in 1996.

On Wednesday morning, Carroll, who the New York jury found was sexually abused in a New York department store changing room 27 years ago, was interviewed by CNN.

The network aired clips of the interview throughout the day, with a chyron hovering over the footage promoting Trump’s town hall appearance.

On Tuesday, CNN had run a story about Liz Cheney, a former Republican congresswoman and critic of Trump.

“New Liz Cheney ad: Trump ‘Aarisk America can never take again,’” read the CNN chyron. Right there, on the corner of the screen, was a promotion for the Trump town hall.

There had been clues, too, about the direction of the town hall in the hour before it began. In handing airtime to Trump, CNN apparently felt it had to host some of the former president’s acolytes, perhaps in the interest of balance.

That led to Wolf Blitzer, a CNN veteran, bringing on JD Vance, a Republican senator from Ohio who has dabbled in the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Asked what Trump needed to do to win undecided voters, Vance said, with a straight face: “Trump has the ability to appeal across the aisles.”

Blitzer then turned the discussion to Trump having been found to have sexually abused Carroll. It gave Vance an on-air opportunity to attack the case as a “he said-she said situation” that has “nothing to do with the future of this country”.

Related: Trump town hall live: ex-president repeats election lies and denies sexual abuse verdict to mostly Republican crowd – as it happened

“So ahead of Trump’s appearance on CNN, we get to watch JD Vance – a man who has pushed conspiracy theories and the white supremacist ‘Great Replacement’ – come on live and do a friendly, pre-game chat,” said Mehdi Hasan, who hosts a show on MSNBC.

“The normalization of extremism and conspiracism continues.”

As the town hall dwindled to a close on Wednesday, things didn’t get any better. At one point, Trump called Collins a “nasty woman” as she attempted to ask Trump a question. The audience laughed.

Trump also referenced New York’s Chinatown – “where they don’t even speak English” – and brought up “impeachment hoax No 1”, to cheers from the crowd.

Behind the scenes, CNN staff were apparently horrified. Justin Baragona, a media reporter for the Daily Beast, tweeted: “Immediate reaction from a CNN on-air personality to me just now on this Trump town hall: ‘It is so bad. I was cautiously optimistic despite the criticism. It is awful. It’s a Trump infomercial. We’re going to get crushed.’”

When the town hall ended and the camera cut to the CNN studio, the panel of pundits seemed dumbstruck.

“We don’t have enough time to factcheck every lie he told,” said Jake Tapper, a senior CNN host.

“I want to be very clear: what we saw tonight was outrageous,” said Laura Coates, a legal analyst.

The CNN correspondent Jamie Gangel might have put it best.

“People are appalled by what they saw tonight,” she said.

It was hard to disagree.