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Trump digs in on election lies, attacks accuser during CNN town hall event

By JILL COLVIN, Associated Press
Published: May 10, 2023, 7:20pm

During a contentious CNN town hall Wednesday night, former President Donald Trump dug in on his lies about the 2020 election, downplayed the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and repeatedly insulted the woman whom a civil jury this week found him liable of sexually abusing and defaming.

Trump, returning to the network after years of acrimony, also refused to say whether he wants Ukraine to win the war against Russian aggression and said the U.S. “might as well” default on its debt obligation, despite the potential devastating economic consequences.

The live, televised event — held in early-voting New Hampshire — underscored the challenges of fact-checking Trump in real time. The former president was cheered on and applauded by an audience of Republican and unaffiliated voters as moderator Kaitlan Collins sometimes struggled to get a word in edgewise. Trump — who at one point snapped that Collins was “a nasty person” — continued to insist the 2020 election had been “rigged,” even though state and federal election officials, his own campaign and White House aides, and numerous courts have said there is no evidence to support his claims.

Trump also defended his delayed response on Jan. 6, when a mob of his supporters violently stormed the Capitol in a bid to halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s win. Trump — who pulled out a printout of his tweets from that day — instead lashed out at the Black police officer who shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbit, calling him a “thug.” And he said he is inclined to pardon “a large portion” of Jan. 6 defendants — more than 670 rioters have been convicted of crimes related to that day.

Trump, who is the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination to take on Biden once again, also rejected a suggestion that he apologize to his former vice president, Mike Pence, who was targeted by the mob after Trump wrongly insisted that Pence had the power to overturn the election results.

“I don’t feel he was in any danger,” he said. In fact, Trump said, Pence was the one who “did something wrong.”

The primetime forum — the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign and Trump’s first interview appearance on CNN since before he was elected president in 2016 — had drawn suspicion from both sides of the political divide since it was announced.

Democrats questioned whether a man who continues to spread lies about his 2020 election loss — lies that sparked the Capitol riot —- should be given a primetime platform. Conservatives wondered why Trump would appear on — and potentially give a ratings bump to — a network he has continually disparaged.

But the stakes were raised considerably Tuesday after jurors in New York found Trump had sexually abused and defamed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, though they rejected her claim that he raped her nearly three decades ago. The jury awarded her $5 million in damages.

Trump, at Wednesday’s event, called the case “fake news” and insisted he didn’t know Carroll, even as he attacked her in deeply personal terms. “She’s a wack job,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Trump has generally not reacted well when pressed onstage about his behavior toward women, most notably during the first Republican presidential debate of 2015, when he sparred with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. He later said she had “blood coming out of her wherever” when she was questioning him. Carroll is one of more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual assault or harassment over the years; Trump has denied the allegations.

While the civil trial verdict carried no criminal penalties, it is just one of a myriad of legal issues facing Trump, who was indicted in New York in March over payments made to women to cover up their allegations of extramarital affairs with him. Trump is also facing investigations in Georgia and Washington over his alleged interference in the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents and potential obstruction of justice.

A small group of anti-Trump protesters gathered Wednesday evening outside the site where the town hall was being held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Their signs included messages like “Nobody is above the law” and “Elections not insurrection.”

Trump, during the town hall, also refused to answer a number of specific questions. He refused to say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban, despite repeated pressing. He said only that he would “negotiate” so “people are happy.”

“I’m looking at a solution that’s going to work,” he said.

He also refused to say whether he wants Ukraine to win its war against Russian aggression, saying, “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing.” And he refused to say whether he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, arguing that would complicate efforts to make a deal to end the conflict.

“That’s something to be discussed at a later date,” he said.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.

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As for the looming risk of an unprecedented government default, Trump sounded blasé.

“Well, you might as well do it now because you’ll do it later because we have to save this country,” he said.

Biden responded to the town hall on Twitter, writing: “It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that? If you don’t, pitch in to our campaign.”

Trump has long called CNN “fake news” and sparred with Collins. She was once barred from a Rose Garden event after Trump’s team became upset with her shouted questions at an earlier Oval Office availability.

Nonetheless, Trump’s team saw the invitation from CNN as an opportunity to connect with a broader swath of voters than those who usually tune into the conservative outlets he favors.

The appearance served as another contrast with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a top rival to Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 and is expected to launch his campaign in the coming weeks. DeSantis has taken a sheltered media approach, largely eschewing questions from the mainstream press while embracing Fox News, which was once a loyal Trump cheerleader but is now frequently denigrated by the former president.

Trump’s campaign has turned to new channels, including popular conservative podcasts and made-for-social-media videos that often rack up hundreds of thousands of views. His team has also been inviting reporters from a variety of outlets to ride aboard his plane and has been arranging unadvertised stops at local restaurants and other venues to show him interacting with supporters, in contrast to the less charismatic DeSantis.