If you caught last month’s disastrous CNN town hall with Donald Trump, there were a few things that likely stood out to you. The ex-president’s continued insistence that the 2020 election was “rigged,” obviously. Or his claim that January 6 was actually Mike Pence’s fault. Or his outrageous suggestion that before Roe v. Wade was overturned, people could “kill a baby in the ninth month…or after the baby is born,” and his disgraceful smears against writer E. Jean Carroll. But in addition to the avalanche of lies, there was another aspect of the proceedings that made the live broadcast extremely weird and unsettling: The audience, which loudly cheered on Trump’s falsehoods throughout the night and laughed when he, for example, attacked the woman a jury had just found him liable of sexually abusing and defaming. And apparently, that was by design.
As Tim Alberta reports in a new Atlantic profile of CNN boss Chris Licht, rather than assembling “an ordinary collection of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents” for the event—as CNN had said it would—most of the people in New Hampshire that night were “diehards, fanboys, political zealots who were likelier to show up at a rally with a MAGA flag than come to a coffee shop with a policy question.” Because, for some reason, that’s exactly what Licht wanted:
Licht had come to Manchester with bigger ambitions than lifting CNN out of the viewership basement for a single evening in May. He believed that Trump owed his initial political ascent in part to the media’s habit of marginalizing conservative views and Republican voters. That needed to change ahead of 2024. Licht wasn’t scared to bring a bunch of MAGA enthusiasts onto his set—he had remarked to his deputies, in the days before the town hall, about the “extra Trumpy” makeup of the crowd CNN was expecting.
Of course, others at the network did not feel the same way, which may have had something to do with it being a terrible idea to basically hold a rally for the guy who tried to overturn the last presidential election and then incited an insurrection when things didn’t go his way.
In the final days before the event, concerns about the audience makeup spiked as Licht’s description of the crowd—“extra Trumpy”—wound its way through Slack channels and text-message threads.
All of these concerns, it turned out, were warranted.… [Moderator Kaitlan] Collins did an admirable job but was steamrolled by Trump in key moments; her questions, which came almost entirely from the candidate’s ideological left, served to effectively rally the room around him. Not that the room needed rallying: The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and because CNN wanted an organic environment, it placed few restrictions on engagement. The ensuing rounds of whole-audience applause—I counted at least nine—disrupted Collins’s rhythm as an interviewer. So did the ill-timed bouts of laughter, such as when Trump mocked E. Jean Carroll, and the jeering that accompanied Collins’s mention of the Access Hollywood tape. By the end of the event, it was essentially indistinguishable from a MAGA rally. People throughout the room shouted, “I love you!” during commercial breaks and chanted, “Four more years!” when the program ended.
Incredibly, Licht—who, when asked by Alberta if he’s a conservative, answered, “I would never put myself into a category. I think it depends on what we’re talking about”—has been unwilling to admit that the town hall was an epic disaster. His immediate take on the night was that despite there being “expected” backlash, Collins gave a “masterful performance,” “fact-checked Donald Trump in real time,” and “made a ton of news.” Speaking to Alberta, he said he had no regrets about the “extra Trumpy” crowd, or letting the audience “cheer at will,” or even “devoting the first question to [Trump’s] election lies,” despite the fact that the former guy was going to obviously keep pushing the lie that he won. In fact, the only thing Licht said he would have done differently was maybe have the audience say if they’d voted for Trump in 2020 or were planning to the next time around.
Given how the night unfolded, that tweak was probably not necessary.
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