The former president is expected to face tough questions from host Kaitlan Collins and the public.
WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump will return to the CNN airwaves Wednesday, joining the network for a two-hour New Hampshire Town Hall event with early voting a day after a civil jury found him liable for sexually assaulting a reporter of consulting nearly three decades ago.
The forum, which was publicly announced last week, should have been newsworthy because it would bring together a network and a candidate who have long fought each other. But the stakes rose sharply Tuesday after New York jurors found that Trump had sexually abused and defamed E. Jean Carroll, though he denied her claim that he raped her. The jury awarded her $5 million in damages.
While the civil trial verdict carries no criminal penalties, it nonetheless sharpens attention to the myriad investigations facing Trump, who was indicted in New York in March over secret payments made to women who accused him of sexual encounters. 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.
He also brings the focus back to questions about Trump’s treatment of women over the years, upping the ante for an event where he’ll be forced to answer hard questions from host Kaitlan Collins and the audience. Carroll is one of more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual assault or harassment over the years, allegations Trump has denied.
Trump historically hasn’t reacted well to being pressed on stage for his behavior toward women, most notably during the first Republican presidential debate in 2015, when he fell out with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. He later said that he had “blood coming out of her everywhere” when he was questioning him.
Trump has a much more contentious relationship with CNN than he did with Fox at the time. Trump called the network “fake news” and fell out with Collins personally. She was once barred from a Rose Garden event after Trump’s team got angry at him shouting questions at a previous Oval Office availability.
However, Trump’s team saw CNN’s invitation as an opportunity to connect with a wider swath of constituents than those who usually tune into the conservative channels they favor.
“President Trump has been battle tested and is a proven winner. He doesn’t back down from anything and confronts them head on,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said.
The appearance will also serve as yet another contrast to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as one of Trump’s main rivals for the GOP presidential nomination and is expected to launch his campaign in the coming weeks. DeSantis has taken a sheltered media approach, largely avoiding questions from the mainstream press as he embraces Fox News, which was once a loyal Trump cheerleader but whom Trump now often decries.
In response, the Trump team has turned to new channels, including popular conservative podcasts and videos made for social media that often rack up hundreds of thousands of views. His team also invited reporters from a variety of outlets to board his plane and arranged unadvertised stops at local restaurants and other venues to show him interacting with cheering fans, in contrast to the less charismatic DeSantis.
It is unclear how or if Tuesday’s verdict will impact the race. Trump’s impeachment in New York only seemed to improve his standing in the GOP primary, and his main rivals largely avoided comment Tuesday night, with a couple of exceptions.
Former Arizona Governor Asa Hutchinson, a vocal critic of Trump, called the allegations “another example of Donald Trump’s indefensible behavior.” been someone other than Trump.
Even before Tuesday’s verdict, CNN’s town hall — the first major televised event of the 2024 presidential campaign — had raised suspicions on both sides of the political divide.
Democrats have questioned whether a man who continues to spread lies about his 2020 election defeat — lies that sparked a deadly insurrection — should be given a primetime broadcast platform. Conservatives have questioned why Trump would appear on a network he has continually decried as “fake news,” and potentially give it a ratings boost.
A Trump adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said CNN executives had given the former president a compelling introduction during the talks.
The adviser also noted that Trump succeeded in 2016 by stepping out of the traditional comfort zone of Republicans.
The former president slipped his appearance into a statement released ahead of Tuesday’s verdict, saying CNN was “rightfully desperate” to get him a ratings boost.
“They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse!!!” she wrote on Truth Social. Me. Let’s see what happens? Wednesday night at 8:00!!!”