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CNN's town hall with Donald Trump takes on added stakes after verdict in Carroll case

CNN host Kaitlan Collins is shouldering added pressure for her network, as its town hall event with former President Donald Trump Wednesday evening takes on even greater stakes. On Tuesday, Trump was found liable for battery and defamation in E. Jean Carroll's civil suit against him.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN; Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
CNN host Kaitlan Collins is shouldering added pressure for her network, as its town hall event with former President Donald Trump Wednesday evening takes on even greater stakes. On Tuesday, Trump was found liable for battery and defamation in E. Jean Carroll's civil suit against him.

Little more than a day after being found liable for battery and defamation of a woman who says he raped her in the 1990s, former President Donald Trump is scheduled to take questions in a live town hall event on the news network whose journalists he called "the enemy of the people" while running for the presidency and serving in office.

Before the jury foreperson announced the verdict at a courtroom in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, the immediate stakes for Trump — and CNN — were already high. Now they are even higher.

For months, Trump has been furious at Fox News, which serves as a pillar of the Republican Party and its controlling owners Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, who have been auditioning Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a GOP presidential candidate before Fox audiences.

Just hours before Tuesday's verdict in E. Jean Carroll's civil suit against him, Trump wrote an angry post on his Truth Social account inveighing against the Murdochs, Fox corporate director Paul Ryan ("Worst Republican Speaker ever") and their premier newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, as well as Fox, which he wrote was "rapidly disintegrating." (Indeed, its prime-time ratings have plunged since it fired star Tucker Carlson late last month, though Fox officials suggest they will rebound once a permanent replacement is named.)

The CNN appearance was intended to allow Trump to demonstrate his independence from a network often favored by his fans. It hasn't been a complete Fox blackout; Trump has given interviews this year to conservative Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, as well as Carlson before his departure. He also spoke to a Fox News digital reporter Tuesday night after the verdict in Carroll's suit went against him.

CNN has much to prove, as well. In his first year on the job, Chairman and CEO Chris Licht has sought to put his mark on the network by draining it of the relentless criticism of Trump in response to the crises and controversies that defined his administration. Many Republicans argue that CNN had become too ideological.

Licht canceled Brian Stelter's media criticism show Reliable Sources and shifted prime-time star Don Lemon to the morning. Both hosts had been outspoken against Trump. Lemon was fired this spring after accusations of sexism both on air and toward his female co-hosts. Lemon and his attorney contest those characterizations. Licht has told his staff they are reestablishing the channel's original identity.

He is echoing the message of his boss, David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN's parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.

"The U.S. has divided government," Zaslav said last week on CNBC. "We need to hear both voices. Republicans are on the air on CNN. Democrats are on the air. All voices should be heard on CNN."

"Our network is about the best version of the facts," Zaslav said. "This is a new CNN." Zaslav has dismissed concerns about CNN's tepid ratings, saying the channel could draw stronger audiences with more partisan fare. Carrying Trump on the air could cause viewership and buzz to spike, at least for the night.

A live town hall with Trump carries risks for CNN

The announcement of CNN's town hall with Trump engendered a backlash from both liberals and journalists who question the wisdom of putting Trump on the air live. During Trump's drive to the White House in 2015 and 2016, the press failed repeatedly to cover him adequately. His rapid-fire bombast and glibness with false claims and outright lies overwhelmed reporters' ability to process the implications of what he was saying in real time.

MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan argued against inviting Trump on. Failing that, however, he declared that CNN had an obligation to confront the former president about his record and his character, in and out of office. He said that CNN should start by asking Trump whether he had disqualified himself from the presidency, both for his actions ahead of the Jan. 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol and recent comments thatappeared to justify "terminating" parts of the U.S. Constitution.

The CNN town hall will feature Republican and non-committed New Hampshire voters at St. Anselm College. It will be moderated by morning host Kaitlan Collins. She is well-known to Trump, as a former White House correspondent for CNN.

CNN political director David Chalian said the network approached the event as it would one for any candidate, but called Trump a "unique candidate" in that he's a former president — the first one to run for the White House in more than a century.

And Chalian acknowledged another distinction. Trump trashed governing norms. He was impeached twice by the U.S. House, though not convicted in the U.S. Senate.

"Obviously, he is under indictment in one case. He's under investigation in several other cases, and then there's the insurrection – January 6th – and how Donald Trump left office," Chalian told NPR before Tuesday's verdict in the Carroll case. "Our job is to do what we do best, which is to ask him questions, follow up, hold him accountable for his words and actions, and in this case, convene this conversation that he's going to have directly with voters as well."

Moderator Kaitlan Collins tussled with Trump as a White House reporter

Collins carries conservative bona fides as a former reporter for the Daily Caller, founded by Carlson. But she did not display a strong ideological affinity as a CNN White House reporter. Indeed, she was hardly seen as a pushover. Trump aides irked over her coverage once blocked her from attending a press conference. (The Trump White House unsuccessfully went to court to revoke the credentials of her colleague Jim Acosta.)

That's a more familiar dynamic for Trump and CNN. He earlier accused the network of "anger and hatred" toward him and said he considered it to be serving as the opposition to his administration.

Now he's encouraging followers to tune in Wednesday night. "They made me a deal I couldn't refuse!!!" Trump posted on his social media site, Truth Social. "Could be the beginning of a New & Vibrant CNN, with no more Fake News, or it could turn into a disaster for all, including me."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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