Former President Donald Trump will return to CNN's airwaves on Wednesday, joining the network for a two-hour town hall event in early-voting New Hampshire a day after a civil jury found him liable for sexually assaulting an advice columnist nearly three decades ago.
The forum, which was publicly announced last week, was expected to be notable because it would be bringing together a network and a candidate who have long sparred with each other. But the stakes raised considerably Tuesday after jurors in New York found Trump had sexually abused and defamed E. Jean Carroll, though it rejected her claim that he raped her. The jury awarded her $5 million in damages.
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 for hush money payments made to women who had accused him of sexual encounters. 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.
It also returns focus to questions over Trump’s treatment of women over the years, raising the stakes for an event at which he will be forced to respond to tough questioning from host Kaitlan 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, allegations Trump has denied.
Trump historically has 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 the network “fake news” and has sparred personally with Collins. She was once barred from a Rose Garden event after Trump’s team got 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 will also serve as yet another contrast with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a top rival to Trump for the GOP presidential nomination 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 which Trump now frequently denigrates.
In response, Trump's team 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 cheering 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 top rivals largely avoided commenting Tuesday night, with a couple of exceptions.
Former Arizona Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a vocal Trump critic, called the accusations “another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump." Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy came to his defense and said he doubted a case would have even been brought if the defendant had been someone other than Trump.
Even before Tuesday's verdict, the CNN town hall — the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign — had raised 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 a deadly insurrection —- should be given a primetime airtime platform. Conservatives wondered why Trump would appear on — and potentially give a ratings bump to — a network that he has continually disparaged as “fake news.”
A Trump adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said CNN executives had made a compelling pitch to the former president during talks.
The adviser also noted that Trump found success in 2016 by stepping outside Republicans’ traditional comfort zone.
The former president plugged his appearance in a statement posted before Tuesday's verdict, saying CNN was “rightfully desperate” to get a ratings bump from him.
“They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse!!!" he wrote on 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!!!”