Trump Camp Sees CNN Town Hall as Calculated Risk

No questions will be off-limits on Wednesday night at the CNN town hall with Donald J. Trump. He can put 15 people of his choice in the audience but none are allowed to ask questions. And his team has not had a hand in guiding how the event will go, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

All of this adds up to no small amount of risk for the former president during the prime-time event, his advisers say — a risk they see as worth taking.

They expect tough questions from the CNN anchor and moderator, Kaitlan Collins — and have been anticipating questions about abortion, investigations into Mr. Trump and a civil jury’s finding him liable for defamation and sexual abuse in the lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll in Manhattan, a verdict handed down a day before the town hall.

But they also know he will mostly be facing questions from an audience of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters in New Hampshire, the state hosting the first primary of the 2024 Republican presidential contest. It was the first state Mr. Trump won in 2016 and a place where he still enjoys popularity among Republicans.

Since the end of his presidency, Mr. Trump has largely been relegated to appearing on right-wing networks and podcasts. He has taken reporters aboard his plane now that he’s a candidate, but his team recognizes that he needs to start venturing beyond the fringe to gain access to a broader audience, particularly as a contrast to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who avoids the mainstream media. And CNN was willing to provide him that opportunity, several advisers said. The town hall will be Mr. Trump’s first appearance on CNN since the 2016 campaign.

“You can’t just stay on certain channels all the time,” said a person close to Mr. Trump who was not authorized to speak publicly about the town hall planning. “You’ve got to start venturing out. And that’s a clear contrast to what other candidates may or may not do.”

The town hall has been months in the making.

Earlier this year, Mr. Trump’s team had wanted to participate in a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity, a popular pro-Trump anchor. But Mr. Hannity ultimately did an interview with Mr. Trump instead, and the town hall never materialized. Through a Fox News press officer, Mr. Hannity denied there was any obstacle to a Fox town hall, insisting Mr. Trump “preferred to do an interview on this occasion and said he would do a town hall as his campaign progressed.”

Several weeks after Mr. Trump declared his candidacy in November, CNN was in touch with the former president’s team about a possible interview, as the network has held with other presidential candidates, said two people familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to describe the talks. As the conversations about a Fox News town hall fizzled, the Trump team began negotiating with CNN in earnest.

“There is no change to our format because of the unique nature of Donald Trump’s candidacy,” said David Chalian, CNN’s political director. “CNN’s role of bringing a candidate into direct touch with voters in this town hall format has been and continues to be a staple of our presidential campaign coverage.”

Mr. Trump is not prone to practice sessions. His debate preparations during his two previous presidential campaigns often devolved into him telling old war stories or yelling at aides. For this occasion, Mr. Trump held an informal session with a handful of aides, including his speechwriter, Vince Haley, on Monday in his office at Mar-a-Lago, according to multiple people briefed on the gathering. No one was assigned to play Ms. Collins. Aides have instead discussed questions that might arise.

The Trump team has spent considerable time discussing the politics of abortion. Mr. Trump is more responsible than anyone — with the possible exception of the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell — for the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Yet Mr. Trump himself has at times been privately ambivalent about the consequences of the decision, and has blamed abortion politics for Republicans’ dismal performance in the 2022 midterm elections. He discussed the subject as if he were a pundit or bystander rather than the architect of Roe v. Wade’s demise. And he has troubled some prominent anti-abortion activists in the way he has handled questions about abortion policy since the midterms. Mr. Trump has refused to say he would support a national abortion ban, instead saying abortion policy should be left to the states.

On Monday, Mr. Trump met at Mar-a-Lago with leaders of the anti-abortion movement who were worried about his recent comments, including Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. In the meeting, Mr. Trump said his position on abortion was the same as it was when he first ran for president and the same as what he endorsed in office, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. Back then, Mr. Trump supported a national ban on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. As a result of Mr. Trump’s comments in the meeting, Ms. Dannenfelser released a statement praising him.

But in the CNN town hall, Mr. Trump might not stipulate a number of weeks at which abortion should be illegal, according to two people familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking. Instead, he is expected to take credit for keeping his anti-abortion promises in office and mention that he supports “the three exceptions”: when necessary to save the life of the mother or when the cases involve rape or incest. He may then turn to attacking Democrats by describing horrific images of late-term abortions, similar to what he did in a 2016 debate with his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

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