Former U.S. president Donald Trump made his first appearance on CNN in over seven years Wednesday night at a town hall where he took questions from Republican and independent voters and moderator Kaitlan Collins.
Despite repeated attempts by Collins to fact-check his statements, Trump made a flurry of false claims about the 2020 election, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the multiple investigations into him and much more.
Many in the crowd cheered on his lies and even laughed when he mocked E. Jean Carroll, the woman who accused him of sexual assault, a day after a jury decided Trump was liable for abusing and defaming her.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways — and lies — of the tense and often contentious night:
Responding to Carroll verdict
Trump did not attend the trial in New York where Carroll’s case was heard, and his lawyers did not mount a defence.
The former advice columnist testified Trump assaulted her in a Manhattan department store dressing room in the 1990s and then harmed her reputation when he denied her claims when she came forward in 2019, when Trump was president.
The jury unanimously awarded Carroll US$5 million in damages.
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Responding for the first time to public questions about the case, Trump doubled down on his denials and bragged about his poll numbers.
“I don’t know her. I never met her. I had no idea who she is,” he said.
He then launched into recounting Carroll’s claims in a mocking voice, which drew laughs and clapping from the live audience. He further riled up the crowd when he called the case “a fake story” and referred to Carroll as “a wack job” — similar comments that formed Carroll’s defamation case.
Collins asked Trump about his comments in the infamous “Access Hollywood” video in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without asking permission. The video was played in the trial and Collins asked him Wednesday if he stood by his remarks.
Trump defended his comments, saying that he had said women let him grab their genitals without permission because he was a star.
“I can’t take that back because it happens to be true,” Trump said.
Doubling down on ‘rigged election’
The evening began with Collins asking Trump why Americans should return him to the White House in 2024 when his first term ended with claims of a stolen election and the ensuing attack on the Capitol.
Trump responded by listing off a litany of false claims about why he feels the 2020 election was rigged against him, and insisted only “a stupid person” would disagree with him. Collins repeatedly pushed back, noting the election was not rigged or unfair.
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Dozens of federal judges rejected Trump’s legal claims of fraud or wrongdoing in the election, and state and federal election officials — as well as Trump’s own attorneys general — have determined the results were fair. Multiple recounts have also validated Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in several states.
Trump did say, in response to an audience member’s question, that he would stop talking about election fraud during the campaign — so long as he didn’t “see any fraud.”
He also defended his phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger where he asked election officials to “find” him votes to overturn the result, falsely saying he made no such request. The call is part of an investigation by Georgia prosecutors who have indicated a decision on indictments may come this summer.
At the end of the night, Collins asked Trump if he will accept the results of the 2024 election if he were to become the Republican nominee, regardless of the outcome. As he has in past elections, he was non-committal.
“If I think it’s an honest election, absolutely,” he said.
Trump called Jan. 6, 2021, “a beautiful day” when asked by Collins if he had any regrets about the attack, focusing instead on the size of the crowd he spoke to before the riot occurred.
The Jan. 6 select congressional committee last year recommended the U.S. Justice Department charge Trump with assisting an insurrection and conspiring against the government, among other charges.
Claiming he “wasn’t involved very much” in the planning of the event, he defended his rally speech and the tweets he posted during the riot, falsely denying he waited hours to urge the rioters to leave the Capitol.
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He called the U.S. Capitol Police officer who shot and killed Ashli Babbit, a Trump supporter seeking entry to the House chamber, a “thug.” He did not mention the three other people and a Capitol Police officer who also died as a result of the attack.
Asked by Collins if he felt he owed former vice-president Mike Pence an apology for putting him in danger, Trump said he did not.
“I don’t feel he was in any danger,” he said. In fact, Trump said, claiming Pence was the one who “did something wrong” by not sending the results back to the state legislatures — something Pence wasn’t sanctioned to do.
Trump also said he would likely pardon “many” of the Jan. 6 rioters. He did not rule out including leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers militia groups who have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy.
Asked about the war in Ukraine, Trump claimed he would negotiate an end to the conflict “in 24 hours” if he is elected president, but wouldn’t say if he wanted Ukraine or Russia to win the war.
“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing, I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people,” he said.
He also refused to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, which he said would only inflame the conflict. Yet he also said Putin “made a mistake” by invading and criticized the shelling of civilian infrastructure.
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As the U.S. barrels toward a potential default on its debt next month if the government doesn’t raise its borrowing limit, Trump sided with Republicans who are refusing to lift the limit without cuts to government spending.
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Asked why he didn’t want to use the debt ceiling as a negotiating tactic but supported Republicans doing so now, Trump replied with a shrug and a smile, “Because now I’m not president.”
He also suggested a default “might as well” happen now as opposed to down the road, adding the impact may not be as catastrophic on the global economy as many experts predict.
“It could be very bad, it could be maybe nothing, maybe you have a bad week or a bad day,” he said.
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No abortion ban commitment
Trump, responding to a question about the U.S. Supreme Court overturning abortion rights last year, took credit for appointing three of the justices who joined in the majority ruling, saying “it was such a great victory and people are starting to understand it now.”
He repeatedly falsely claimed that abortion rights supporters wanted to “kill a baby” in the ninth month of pregnancy or even after a birth. The claim is based on a misleading interpretation of a Senate vote.
Trump also dodged questions about whether, if elected president again, he would sign a national abortion ban. Trump instead spoke about the court ruling as having given anti-abortion activists “negotiating ability.”
“What I will do is negotiate so people are happy,” he said, when asked if he would sign a federal abortion ban. He repeatedly said he would “do what’s right,” without specifying what that was.
The Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, which recently announced its support of Trump’s candidacy, has said it would not support any White House candidate who did not at a minimum support a 15-week federal abortion ban.
Keeping classified documents
Trump defended his keeping of top secret and confidential government documents at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, which is now the subject of a Justice Department probe.
“I had every right to do it. I didn’t make a secret of it,” Trump said.
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Trump gave a vague answer when Collins asked if he ever showed the classified documents to anyone.
“Not really. I would have the right to,” the former president said.
“What do you mean `Not really?”’ Collins asked.
“Not that I can think of,” Trump said.
Trump noted that other presidents and vice-presidents had kept documents after leaving but didn’t mention that he refused to turn over documents even after receiving a subpoena.
Sparring with the moderator
As Collins continued to push back on Trump’s claims about classified documents, Trump at one point showed his frustration and called the CNN anchor “a nasty person.”
During the same conversation, Trump and Collins were talking over each other and Trump at one point declared: “You’re so wrong. You don’t know the subject.”
“I do know the subject,” she retorted.
Trump also claimed Collins and others in the media had an “agenda” by fact-checking his election claims.
Despite all that, Trump and Collins shook hands at the end of the hour-long event, with Trump saying “nice job.”
— with files from the Associated Press