The 2024 presidential campaign is only beginning, but former President Donald Trump made clear that his third bid for the White House will feel very much like the first two.
Could he stop lying about the 2020 election?
Did he regret his role in the US Capitol riot on January 6, 2021?
Would he attempt to walk the line in a bid to win over moderate voters?
No and no. Emphatically no.
Trump might be trying a new tack in this campaign, running what is, to date, a more conventional race with less internal drama. But when pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, the 76-year-old showed on Wednesday night that he is very much the same person Americans came to know in 2016, throughout his four years in office, and in the aftermath of his 2020 election defeat.
During the town hall, the former president talked up a potential debt default as a minor inconvenience, wouldn’t say if he’d back Ukraine over Russia in the war and spoke glowingly of his family separation policy at the US border.
Notably, Trump refused to plant a flag in the sand on a potential federal abortion ban. He did, however, make a number of false claims about abortion being conducted at “nine months.”
He repeated much of what he’s said previously. Trump blamed others for the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol. He lied about the timeline of that day, suggesting he had called for his supporters to stand down earlier than he actually did. And he again criticized former Vice President Mike Pence for not trying to overturn the election results.
He smeared former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, the day after a Manhattan federal jury found that Trump sexually abused her in 1996, and Trump repeated his infamous comments from the “Access Hollywood” tape that emerged in 2016.
When he wasn’t calling women names, airing old grievances or attempting to rewrite history, the former president largely dodged questions and follow-up inquiries from Collins, saying he was “looking at” his options, without committing to anything in particular.
Unsurprisingly, the mostly Trump-loyal audience lapped it up. Trump’s place in the GOP primary polls, as he often mentioned, is strong. In New Hampshire on Wednesday night, he showed why.
Here are 8 takeaways from Trump’s CNN town hall:
A little more than 24 hours after a jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll, and awarded her $5 million, the former president denied the accusations and again said he had never met Carroll.
“This woman, I don’t know her. I never met her. I have no idea who she is,” Trump said, before going off on an odd tangent about her former husband and a pet.
Trump also brushed off a question over whether the verdict would hurt his standing with female voters, saying he doubted it. The reaction from the Trump-friendly audience appeared to support his opinion – they laughed at his jokes and other dismissive comments about Carroll.
While the jury found that Trump sexually abused Carroll, sufficient to hold him liable for battery, they did not find that Carroll proved he raped her – a distinction Trump was quick to point out.
Carroll filed the lawsuit last November under the New York State Adult Survivors Act, a state bill that allowed renewed consideration of sexual assault allegations that would previously have been mooted by the statute of limitations.
The US is on the brink of a catastrophic default on its sovereign debt. Asked what his advice is to Republicans in Washington, Trump was clear.
“If they don’t give you massive cuts,” he said, “you’re going to have to do a default.”
Trump predicted that Democrats would “cave” in the current negotiations, but insisted that default would be preferable to a result that doesn’t stop the government “spending money like drunken sailors.”
The US hit the debt ceiling set by Congress in January. That forced the Treasury Department to begin taking so-called extraordinary measures to keep the government paying its bills. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently warned that the US could default on its obligations as soon as June 1 if Congress doesn’t address the debt limit.
A default would eliminate millions of jobs, with generational wealth wiped out, Moody’s Analytics has warned. The impact could include a delay in Social Security payments, late paychecks for federal employees and veterans.
Trump repeatedly ducked questions about whether he would sign into law a federal abortion ban, as well as after how many weeks into a pregnancy abortion should be made illegal.
He touted the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade’s federal abortion rights as “such a great victory” – and one made possible by his appointment of three conservative justices.
But Trump also recognized splits within the GOP over whether to impose a federal abortion ban, and what the conditions of such a ban should be. Democrats have won statewide referendums, judicial races and more while emphasizing their support for abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Trump said he supports exemptions to abortion bans for cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened.
“We now have a great negotiating ability, and I think we’re going to be able to get something done,” Trump said.
Trump refused to say whether he wanted Ukraine to prevail in its war with invading Russia.
“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he said, “I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people.”
Asked to choose a side he would prefer to win, Trump again demurred. “I want everyone to stop dying,” he said before promising to end the war in “24 hours.”
Ultimately, Trump fell back on two familiar topics: demanding Europe “put up more money” in support of Western goals and speaking meekly about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He made a tremendous mistake” Trump said of Putin, before adding, “He is a smart guy.”
The mistake, Trump said, “was going in” to Ukraine – something, the former president added, that would not have happened if he were still in the White House.
Trump demonstrated no remorse for his role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Asked about former Vice President Mike Pence’s claims that Trump’s actions put his family’s lives in danger, Trump said he does not owe Pence an apology – and blamed his former vice president for his ceremonial role in counting Electoral College votes.
“No, because he did something wrong. He should have put the votes back to the state legislature,” Trump said, wrongly insisting that Pence had the legal authority to reject some states’ electoral votes.
Trump also said he was “inclined to pardon” many of the pro-Trump rioters who were convicted for their roles in the attack on the Capitol.
He said he won’t be able to pardon “every single one” but said “it will be a large portion of them.”
And he criticized the US Capitol Police officer who shot and killed rioter Ashli Babbitt, who was attempting to crawl through a broken window leading to the House Speaker’s Lobby.
Trump said he would return to one of the harshest immigration enforcement policies imposed by his administration: separating migrant families at the US-Mexico border.
The “zero tolerance” policy encapsulated the lengths Trump’s administration was willing to go to deter migrants from coming to the United States, and Trump said it remained a strong deterrent.
“When you say to a family that if you come, we’re going to break you up, they don’t come,” Trump said.
His comments come with Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic public health restriction that became a key tool officials used to expel migrants at the US-Mexico border, set to expire Thursday.
As he has at virtually every stop since leaving office, Trump repeated his lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
He also would not commit to accepting the results of the 2024 presidential election, saying he would only do so “if I think it’s an honest election.”
Collins pointed out that Republican state elections officials in Georgia and elsewhere had refuted Trump’s falsehoods, and that Trump and his supporters lost dozens of lawsuits over the 2020 race. But Trump deflected, repeating debunked claims about fraudulent votes.
“I think it’s a shame what happened. I think it’s a very sad thing for our country,” Trump said.
Trump kept up his long habit of name-calling Wednesday night.
Democratic former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “a crazy woman.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential primary rival, is “DeSantimonious.” Pence, who rejected Trump’s urging to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election, is “the human conveyor belt.” The US Capitol Police officer who shot and killed Babbitt is a “thug.” (The rioters, meanwhile, were “great people.”) Carroll, in Trump’s telling, is a “whack job.” And when Collins pressed Trump about documents he took from the White House, he said: “You’re a nasty person.”
The jabs are standard fare for Trump, who en route to the GOP nomination in 2016 branded rivals with nicknames. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was “low energy.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was “Lyin’ Ted.” And when then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly pressed Trump on his history of insulting women in a 2015 debate, Trump falsely said of Kelly: “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”