Why did CNN give former President Donald Trump a prime-time town hall?

Trump clapping in front of 2024 campaign poster and US flag
Former President Donald Trump. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

CNN and former President Donald Trump may have seemed like an odd match.

After all, Trump rallies featured ‘CNN sucks’ chants, while the network’s former chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta was banned from the executive mansion after emerging as Trump’s chief media antagonist.

But John Wihbey, an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Northeastern University, says the opportunities for both CNN and for Trump from Wednesday evening’s town hall in New Hampshire may have outweighed the tension between the two camps.

“Both sides clearly saw some incentive here,” Wihbey says. “Both saw they needed a center or center-left audience, and this event may have benefited both.” 

The CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall featured questions from moderator Kaitlan Collins, as well as New Hampshire Republican and undeclared voters who plan to vote in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. It was broadcast live.

headshot of John Wihbey
John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and media innovation. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It marked the first time that Trump appeared on CNN since 2016, according to the network. 

And—it can’t be ignored—it came at an odd time. First of all, Wihbey noted it was early in the election cycle. In fact, Trump’s most likely challenger for the GOP nomination, Ron DeSantis, has not even declared whether he will run. Then, there were the latest headlines out of a New York courtroom, where a jury on Tuesday found the former president liable for the sexual assault and defamation of writer E. Jean Carroll. 

CNN said in a May 1 press release that it has “a longstanding tradition of hosting leading presidential candidates for Town Halls and political events as a critical component of the network’s robust campaign coverage.” 

“This event with former President Trump will be the first of many for CNN in the coming months as CNN correspondents travel across the country to hear directly from voters in the runup to the 2024 presidential election,” the network said.

It also came with risks—for both the former president and for the network, Wihbey said. 

For the former president, he faced voters and a moderator who asked him about his roles in multiple ongoing investigations, who had no incentive to lob softball questions and who challenged the current Republican 2024 frontrunner on some of his most controversial statements and actions.

On Wednesday night, Trump again refused to acknowledge he lost the last election said he’d pardon Capitol rioters.

The early headlines:

Wihbey noted that Trump doesn’t typically handle criticism or being challenged well.

“Honestly, it’s the sort of unfiltered stuff that I worry about the most,” Wihbey said. “It could be a big backfire for him … if he finally just loses his (expletive) and starts yelling at the audience—that’s likely as anything.”

And, Wihbey said, such moments will likely go viral on social media and figure prominently in President Joe Biden campaign ads.

For the network, well, the decision to even hold a town hall with Trump was controversial due to his demonstrated penchant for lying and for his incendiary statements, which got him banned from Facebook and Twitter for a period of time. A recent $787.5 million settlement by Fox News for airing false claims about Dominion Voting systems also may have given them pause … or maybe it gave CNN a chance to get closer to or overtake their right-wing rival (and give Trump a chance to diss Rupert Murdoch for his primetime hosts’ unflattering text messages).

But there were, of course, benefits too.

“I mean, CNN itself had been in the headlines,” Wihbey said, pointing to leadership change and recent high-profile firings and calling the town hall an “unorthodox move.”

“For CNN maybe this was a try to reach out across party lines and try to establish themselves as some kind of center-left media brand,” Wihbey said. “Trump spent so much time lambasting Jim Acosta he made CNN a kind of swear word in Republican circles.”

Meanwhile, this could also have been an opportunity to promote Collins, whom Wihbey called “a rising star” in journalism known for her tough interviews, including with Trump. 

“Another thing is that I think CNN wants to be relevant in this election,” Wihbey added. “If they think they’re the first mover in trying to get back in the mix of Biden vs. Trump—as it seems we’re heading—that will increase their relevance in the election.”

For Trump, well, he needed a political-center reset as well, Wihbey said, outlining several moderate groups Trump needs to win over. These include: moderate independents to win the presidency; establishment Republicans so that they will work with him and support him (which so far, hasn’t really happened, Wihbey noted) and DeSantis allies who will assume Trump’s nomination is a foregone conclusion and thus could dissuade the Florida governor from running.

“I’m sure (The Trump campaign’s) internal polling says that the thing he needs to do is ensure voters he’s not completely off the rails,” Wihbey said. “Maybe what he was trying to say here was, ‘you can get behind me, I’m going to whistle a different tune…’ I am quite curious, I think a lot of people are, to see if he sings a tune that appeals to moderate Republicans.”

Of course, that is if people watch.

Wihbey said primary debates generally garner about 15 million viewers. He predicted Wednesday’s town hall would get 3 million.

“A town hall like this, this far away from the election, probably doesn’t do much,” Wihbey said.
Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.