The nausea came gradually, then suddenly, and with disconcerting familiarity. We had been flung back in time to the political hellscape of 2016. Only the second time around, it was somehow worse.
Donald Trump, the former US president appearing on CNN for the first time since that fateful election year, lied and lied and lied. He was a leviathan of lying, a juggernaut of junk, an ocean liner of mendacity that left little boats of truth spinning and overturning in its wake.
Trump called a Black police officer a “thug”. He made racist comments about Chinatown in Washington. He described host Kaitlan Collins as a “nasty person”.
He made fun of a woman he sexually abused as a “whack job”. He refused to say whether he wants Russia or Ukraine to win the war.
Given the 45th president’s inability to change, it was the definition of shocking but not surprising. What may have come as a rude awakening to the pundit class is that many in the audience in Manchester, New Hampshire, were lapping it up and cheering him on.
Some gave Trump a standing ovation as he walked in. Some clapped and hollered at his responses. Some laughed or put their hands to their mouths, visibly thrilled by his “Can he really say that?” taboo-busting.
Anyone taken aback by these reactions has not been paying attention to Trump rallies, where being outlandish and outrageous and cruel is the point.
Although CNN’s decision to devote more than an hour of prime time to Trump backfired horribly, it did perform the service of forcing the American public to look at itself in the mirror.
The vocal support for Trump made this feel like a home fixture. The CNN political commentator Van Jones likened Collins to a white-suited matador against Trump’s bull in familiar blue suit, white shirt and red tie. It was less town hall than a debate, Trump versus Collins, lies versus truth. Truth didn’t stand a chance.
Trump, 76, was like a child with crumbs around his mouth repeatedly telling a parent (Collins, 31) that he didn’t take the last cookie.
The pair began perched on white chairs on a shiny stage floor that had a big CNN logo against a backdrop of blue and red. Two CNN mugs were perched on small tables beside them. Trump dived straight into his “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. Collins corrected:
“It was not a rigged election. It was not a stolen election. You and your supporters lost more than 60 court cases on the election. It’s been nearly two and a half years. Can you publicly acknowledge that you did lose the 2020 election?”Fact-checking Donald Trump’s CNN town hall – video report
Trump barged on with bogus conspiracy theories, talking too fast to be fact-checked and too shamelessly to be interrupted. He gave a long-winded and false defence of his actions on 6 January 2021, earning laughter from the audience with a reference to “Crazy” Nancy Pelosi.
Asked why it took him three hours to respond to the riot, Trump pulled out pages of notes to more cheering and clapping. Collins: “Over 140 officers were injured that day.” Trump: “And a person named Ashli Babbitt was killed. You know what? She was killed, and she shouldn’t have been killed. And that thug that killed her, there was no reason to shoot her at blank range … And he went on television to brag about the fact that he killed her.”
Collins: “That officer was not bragging about the fact that he killed her.”
Trump said he is inclined to pardon “many” of the January 6 rioters. Again, applause from the audience. The base loves him for the precise reasons that others despise him.
Stuart Stevens, author of It Was All a Lie: How The Republican Party Became Donald Trump, tweeted: “Democracies end when autocrats master the use of the freedoms of democracy to kill democracy.”
Collins turned to Tuesday’s verdict, by which a New York jury found that Trump sexually abused magazine writer E Jean Carroll in the 1990s and then defamed her by branding her a liar. They awarded her about $5m in compensatory and punitive damages.
Even seasoned Trump watchers were disgusted by what came next. Trump said of Carroll: “I have no idea who she is. I had a picture taken years ago with her and her husband, nice guy John Johnson.
He was a newscaster, very nice man. She called him an ape, happens to be African American. Called him an ape – the judge wouldn’t allow us to put that in. Her dog or her cat was named Vagina, the judge wouldn’t allow to put that in.”
Asked if the case will deter women from voting for him, Trump gave a sneering and meandering version of Carroll’s account of being assaulted by him in the 1990s.
“What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes, you’re playing hanky-panky in a dressing room, OK? I don’t know if she was married then or not. John Johnson, I feel sorry for you, John Johnson.”
It was toe-curling, not-knowing-where-to-look bad television reminiscent of Trump appearing with women who accused Bill Clinton of rape and unwanted sexual advances before he debated Hillary.
As the torture continued, Collins could have been forgiven for thinking her bosses have got it in for her: first a morning show with Don Lemon, now a dark night of the soul with Caligula.
She held her own at some moments but was overwhelmed by the geyser of deceit and missed follow-ups at others. At one point she objected: “The election was not rigged, Mr. President. You can’t keep saying that all night long.” He might have replied: just watch me.
One of the side-effects of all the shock and horror around Trump is that sometimes he gets off the hook on policy. Asked five times, he refused to say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban if re-elected, merely arguing that leaders of the anti-abortion movement are “in a very good negotiating position right now” because of the supreme court overturning Roe v Wade.
When Collins asked if he wants Ukraine to win its war against Russia, he replied: “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.”
When asked if the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was a war criminal, he demurred and insisted: “That’s something to be discussed at a later date.”
Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor who ran for president in 2016, tweeted: “Donald Trump says he would end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours tonight on CNN. Despite how ridiculous that is to say, I suspect he would try to do it by turning Ukraine over to Putin and Russia. #Putin’sPuppet.”
If this had indeed been a debate, Trump’s camp claimed victory. It was a warning to potential 2024 Republican primary candidates who may have to face him on the debate stage: how do you take on a motormouth entirely unencumbered by factual reality?
When the ordeal was over, the ghosts of 2016 were everywhere and the grim expressions in the CNN studio said it all. Host Jake Tapper admitted: “We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.”
Trump is a noxious self centered con man and a criminla, but nevertheless and with my total surprise at this point is the leading candidate for the GOP.
The applause and the cheers he received simply indicate that the idea that right wing Americans are in any way smarter or better people than the people that supported Hitler or Putin or Mussolini is bogus. Those people do not care about Democracy or the law, they have been instilled with fear and hate and are just embracing their worst instincts.
Yeah not like the Democrats who supported the BLM and ANTIFA riots when they were burning down and looting businesses
Trump is a lier, GOD save us from another 4 years of his hatred. How could any GOD fearing American ever vote for him.
Yeah not like the senile pervert in the WH now who liked to shower with his daughter and sniff small girls hair. How could anyone vote for that imbecile who lies every day
This article is nauseating. I couldn’t read through it. Shouldn’t call this “news.” It’s not. It’s just spewing hateful garbage.
Trump is the only presidential candidate who has been convicted of sexual assault. I know the Republicans party can do better.