NEW YORK - During a tense CNN town hall Wednesday, former President Donald Trump dug in on his lies about the 2020 election, downplayed the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and repeatedly insulted a woman in response to a civil jury's finding this week that he was liable of sexually assaulting her.
During the contentious back-and-forth in early-voting New Hampshire — where moderator Kaitlan Collins sometimes struggled to fact-check his misstatements in real time — Trump continued to insist the election had been "rigged," even though state and federal election officials, his own campaign and White House aides, and numerous courts have rejected his allegations.
Trump also repeatedly minimized the violence caused by a mob of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a bid to halt the certification of President Joe Biden's win. Instead, he said he was inclined to pardon "a large portion" of Jan. 6 defendants if he wins reelection. He also rejected a suggestion that he apologize to his former vice president, Mike Pence, who was targeted by the mob.
"I don't feel he was in any danger," he said. In fact, Trump said, Pence was the one who "did something wrong."
Throughout, the audience of Republican and unaffiliated voters cheered him on, laughing and applauding.
The prime-time forum in New Hampshire brought together a network and candidate who have long sparred with each other. 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 said the ruling was "A DISGRACE" and he vowed to appeal.
Trump, at Wednesday's event, again 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.
While the civil trial verdict carries no criminal penalties, it nonetheless revives attention on the myriad investigations 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, repeatedly refused to say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban if it landed on his desk, saying he would "negotiate" so "people are happy."
"I’m looking at a solution that’s going to work," he said.
The Carroll verdict returned focus to questions about Trump’s treatment of women over the years that he likely will have to address from 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; Trump has denied the allegations.
Trump has generally not reacted well when pressed on stage 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.
Trump has a much more contentious relationship with CNN than he had with Fox at the time. Trump has 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.
"President Trump has been battle-tested and is a proven winner. He doesn’t shy away from anything and faces them head on," said Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung.
The appearance also 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.
It remains unclear how or whether Tuesday's verdict will have any impact on the race. Trump's indictment in New York only seemed to improve his standing in the GOP primary and his campaign was fundraising off the verdict.
Trump's rivals weighed in on the verdict, with some hitting him harder than others.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the accusations "another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump." Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy came to Trump's defense and said he doubted a case would have even been brought if the defendant had been someone other than Trump.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former ally who is now weighing a run as a Trump antagonist, said Trump's insistence that he had no idea who Carroll was "ridiculous."
"This kind of conduct is unacceptable for somebody that we call a leader," Christie told Brian Kilmeade on Fox News radio. "Do I think this is a silver bullet that ends Donald Trump’s candidacy? No. I just think it’s additional weight of evidence that people are going to look at."
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to launch a campaign in the coming weeks, told NBC he doesn't believe voters will pay much attention to the verdict.
"It’s just one more story, focusing on my former running mate, that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media but I just don’t think it’s where the American people are focused," Pence said. He said he had "never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature" while he was serving under Trump.
The CNN town hall, the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign, already had drawn suspicion from both sides of the political divide.
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 prime-time platform. Conservatives wondered why Trump would appear on — and potentially give a ratings bump to — a network that he has continually disparaged.
"They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse!!!" Trump wrote on his social media platform, 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. Let’s see what happens? Wednesday Night at 8:00!!!"
He repeated the message in a video Wednesday.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Asa Hutchinson is a former governor of Arkansas, not Arizona.