Here’s how CNN can reduce the harm of giving Trump the microphone

Donald Trump has already won half the battle, if not more. By inviting him onto their “town hall” stage on May 10, CNN is treating him like an ordinary presidential candidate rather than like an insurrectionist and serial law-breaker.

By filling the audience with fans, they are artificially maintaining his bubble of adoration. In real life, his supporters are outnumbered about 2 to 1, and a majority of Americans believe he’s a criminal.

By letting him appear live and in a “town hall”, they are ceding almost all control. As historian Rick Perlstein notes, the town hall format was originally cooked up by Roger Ailes for the 1968 Nixon campaign “to bamboozle the public into believing Nixon was bravely taking all comers, when actually he was getting questioned by amateurs who didn’t know how to ask tough questions and follow up.”

Sure, CNN will get great ratings for one hour. But at what cost – to their reputation and to the country?

It’s like 2015 all over again, with CNN giving him free access to lie to their audience, except this time the guy tried to overthrow the U.S. government and faces a litany of possible felony charges for flouting the law in innumerable ways.

Charlotte Klein reported Tuesday for Vanity Fair that CNN doesn’t intend for anchor Kaitlin Collins to ask many questions herself. “[T]he primary focus of a presidential town hall is to have the candidate interact with the voters, and that’s why we convene these things, CNN political director David Chalian told Klein.

That’s a mistake. But CNN will still bear responsibility for all the questions. First, it agreed to limit the audience to people who plan to vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary, and second, questions will go through a “thorough vetting process” to ” assure accuracy”. So if the questions are weak, it’s on them.

Instead of vague, forward-looking questions about the campaign, the questions should be more along the lines of what did he know and when did he know it. What was he thinking? And why should we believe him?

As Northeastern University law professor Jeremy Paul tweeted: “Ask any question that starts ‘how did you’ or ‘why did you’. The man has no ideas.”

CNN’s own Daniel Dale has explained: “Even basic pushback – words like who, what, how – can effectively expose Trump’s lies for what they are.” So, for instance, when Trump says “people say,” ask “what people?”

CNN’s obligation, whether they like it or not, is to confront Trump with the facts that he avoids or denies, and to demand concrete answers to questions about all the things that have happened since he last took questions in public.

And they must be prepared to rebut his further lies in real times.

By contrast, if they let him get away with saying the same old things that he always says, it will be a journalistic catastrophe and another self-inflicted humiliation for CNN.

Demand Answers About the Insurrection

No issue looms larger than the attempted insurrection.

Q. What was on your mind that day, as you refused requests from your staff to tell the Capitol rioters to go home? Were you happy? Were you sad?

Q. What were you doing for more than three hours that afternoon, instead of telling rioters to leave the Capitol or doing anything to help the lawmakers? Who did you speak to? (h/t @Belmont2032525)

After I asked for suggestions on Twitter, Patrick Hirigoyen of St. Paul, MN, emailed me several good ones. Among them:

Q. It was reported that you wanted to be taken to the Capitol after your Jan. 6, 2021, rally, but your Secret Service agents refused. What would you have done if you instead had made it inside the Capitol that day?

Q. If the rioters had succeeded in hanging Mike Pence, what would you have done?

Along the same lines:

Q. Do you think the Dominion voting machines were rigged? (h/t @OopsITweetedAgn)

Q. At what point did you conclude that the Capitol riot was a bad thing?

Q. Have you ever privately conceded to anyone that you lost?

Q. When did you decide to cede the White House to President Biden?

The Documents in the Case

Another crucial area of inquiry: Trump’s illegal possession of classified documents and the ensuing cover-up.

Q. When you were illegally in possession of classified documents at Mar-a-lago, who did you share them with and what did you share?

Q. At what point did you realize that you weren’t supposed to have them, and what did you do?

Q. Whose idea was it to lie to the FBI and say that you had turned them all over when you had not?

Q. A U.S. district judge ordered one of your attorneys to testify before a grand jury, writing that the special counsel’s office had made a “prima facie showing” that you committed criminal violations – i.e. that you lied to the lawyer about having returned all the documents. What will the lawyer tell the grand jury?

So Many Crimes

Q. New York Attorney General Letitia James has charged you with “staggering” fraud for overvaluing your assets by billions of dollars to obtain loans. Do you think of overvaluing assets as illegal?

Q. You had Michael Cohen pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about having had sex with you. Did you in fact have sexual relations with her? Would you have paid her off even if you weren’t running for president? How and when did you decide to call those payments legal fees?

Q. There’s a considerable amount of evidence that you raped E. Jean Carroll. Do you still maintain that you did not? Why wouldn’t you tell that to the jury?

It’s also essential to confront Trump with some of his frequent lies.

Q. You still say you won the 2020 election, and that it was rigged. That’s a lie. You have zero – zero – evidence to support it. Why do you keep saying this when you know it’s not true?

Q. You’ve said that “Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, who was handpicked and funded by George Soros, is a disgrace.” That’s not just a lie, it’s racist, antisemitic incitement. Why do you say things like that? What effect are you hoping for?

Q. You call the Russia investigation a “hoax” but aren’t the following statements in fact true? 1. Vladimir Putin tried to subvert the 2016 election in part to help you win; 2. You and your aides helped him by denying such an attack was happening; 3. In fact, you and your aides signaled to Moscow that you were willing to accept Putin’s covert assistance.

What Does He Stand For?

Trump talks so much about himself and about how he won in 2020 that you don’t actually hear much about his policy views, to the extent that even holds any. But especially given the backlash against extremist abortion bans, he needs to be pinned down.

Q. Do you support a total ban on abortion across the United States? Or a ban after a certain number of weeks?

Q. What would you tell a woman who argues that she has the same rights to bodily autonomy as a man?

Q. What would you tell the 10-year-old girl who was raped and then denied an abortion in Ohio? What would you tell her parents?

Q. Do you support a ban on the morning after pill?

And, just for the record:

Q.  Do you support a ban on birth control?

Q.  Do you support a ban on interracial marriages?

Current affairs questions are good:

Q. The U.S. is running out of money to pay its bills. Biden wants Congress to raise the debt ceiling without making any budget concessions – which he says should be an issue during budget negotiations, not now. If Biden doesn’t relent, do you support forcing the government to default on its debts?

Here are some questions about Ukraine, from OopsITweetedAgn:

Q. Would you continue to fund Ukraine’s defense?

Q. If you propose you would be able to negotiate peace, what does that look like for Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty?

Sometimes big-picture questions are the best:

Q. How is your agenda different from the agenda of wealthy people who don’t want to support the less fortunate or pay more taxes?

Q. You say four years wasn’t enough for you to achieve your goals. Why would four more years be different?

Q. The national discourse has gotten much coarser since you joined the presidential race. People feel a lot more free to say racist and discriminatory things out loud than they used to – especially about immigration, majority-Black downtowns, and LGBTQ people . Do you consider that an achievement?

Personnel is Policy

Trump’s personnel decisions alone deserve an hour’s worth of questions.

Q. Many of the people you hired you now call corrupt and incompetent. You hired Bill Barr, John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney and gave them enormously powerful positions. Are you a terrible judge of character?

Q. Who would you hire next time around? Who would you hire again?

Q. Would you overrule officials and give Jared a security clearance again?


And how about throwing in some curveballs?

Q. Who do you admire besides yourself?

Q. How are things with Melania and Ivanka? They seem kind of done with you.

Lightning Round

What is beyond the pale, even for Trump? I’d like to see a lightning round of questions, asking him yes or no:

Q. Should Christianity be the official religion of the United States?

Q. Do you believe that, as president, you can fire any government employee you consider disloyal to you?

Q. Is it OK for members of the public to physically attack journalists who they think are being anti-Trump?

Q. Do you believe that you actually are president right now?

Q. Neo-Nazis love you. Do you love them back?

Q. The Proud Boys love you. Do you love them back?

Q. Are white people inherently superior to nonwhites?

Q. Do you believe that Islamists have secretly infiltrated the U.S. government?

Q. If elected, will you leave office at the end of your term?

Who’s the Faker?

If CNN has any pride, it has to push back on years of lies and calumny Trump has directed specifically at them.

Q. You’ve repeatedly referred to CNN as “fake news” and have encouraged violence against reporters. One man who was inspired by your rallies sent pipe bombs to CNN. Don’t you think you owe us an apology? ( h/t @engelr412)

CNN, for its sake, owes us full transparency with regard to what it did and didn’t offer Trump as incentives to come on their network. A Trump “advisor” allegedly told Semafor that “CNN executives made a compelling pitch.” What was it? How much control over the questioning will he get?

The stakes are high, but the expectations are low. As Michael Signorile wrote in his newsletter:

CNN is likely to just treat this as yet another normal town hall with a presidential candidate—even as this man encouraged violence in recent weeks among his supporters as he feared being indicted and is right now in the middle of a civil trial to determine if he is guilty of raping a woman.

They will likely let him rail on about how terrible the country is right now, how horrible his opponents are, and how he’ll restore the nation to the “greatness” of his administration. And he will no doubt promote the Big Lie—a dangerous threat to democracy—repeatedly.

This comes at an already fraught moment for the network, struggling to define itself as “neutral” at a time when that’s actually a radical position that almost no one actually shares. As investigative journalist Judd Legum tweeted: “First, CNN systematically purged anyone on the network who was deemed too anti-Trump. Now this.”

CNN’s conduct will also likely tell us a lot about what campaign coverage will be like this time around. Donald Trump is not a normal presidential candidate. The corporate media needs to make that very clear, even if it costs them money. They appear unlikely to do so.


  1. I’m in favor of legacy networks never covering Trump live in order to give them time to fact-check and judge newsworthiness of his statements vs. manipulation in service of his campaign and the destruction of democracy. When they do cover him live, they should provide true context before and after. Provision of context is, after all, one of the few specific claims the news media makes about its own purpose.

    A very disappointing example of the total failure to provide the most useful context occured when Trump gave his victory speech after Road Runnering the 1st impeachment. He was late, so a host and a political reporter for NPR’s Here and Now program had to fill 20-30 minutes on national NPR airwaves by providing information about the impeachment and speculation about what Cheeto Nero would say to his assembled catch-farts.

    Bizarrely, they failed to mention the fact that he constantly lies, or that his not being convicted in the Senate was in totally bad faith. The universe they describe through these omissions barely resembles the one the rest of us in listener-land inhabit.

  2. It’s not entirely about ratings. CNN could have invited Biden for a town hall, and it would attract millions of viewers. This is actually about CNN luring viewers away from Fox, which has been ambivalent about its Trump support since they ditched Carlson. But giving Trump a non-threatening venue smacks of the ass kissing the media did in 2015-2016 when they fawned over Trump and gave him more than twice the coverage they gave Clinton.

    • I agree with you that CNN wants to lure viewers away from Fox. The moderator, Kaitlin Collins, covered the 2016 election for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller.
      CNN should be offering town halls to other declared candidates like RFK Jr and Maryanne Williamson.

  3. I’m not sure that questions about many of Trump’s past actions are very useful. He knows how to deflect such questions, at least to the satisfaction of anyone who is at all likely to vote for him. What he was thinking during the Jan 6 insurrection is not important; what is important is that he continues to claim that he won the election and that he continues to support the insurrectionists, which everybody knows already if they pay attention to the news – specifically CNN – at all. Trying to pin him down on “people say” statements is a waste of time.

    How about questions about his current stances and what he would do if elected President? He has a lot of very unpopular positions and it is a mistake to take attention away from these things. Ask about abortion, Russia and other things in which he is out of step with the majority. Ask about his broken promises on things like tax cuts for the rich and infrastructure. Does he support House Republicans’ efforts to effectively cut almost all social services? Remember that most Democratic positions are popular – Trump and Republicans in general get votes by appealing on certain gut issues like racism and immigration (abortion is such an issue but is apparently a loser now for Republicans).


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