(The Hill) — An explosive piece of political theater is set for Wednesday evening when former President Donald Trump appears at a town hall event televised by CNN — a day after he was found liable in a civil trial of sexual abuse.
Trump and the network have been fierce foes in recent years. Trump even went so far, while president, to send a tweet featuring a modified image of him body-slamming a person with the CNN logo superimposed on their head. Separately, he retweeted a cartoon of a train hitting a CNN reporter.
The network, for its part, was seen by some as having damaged its brand with gratuitously petty attacks on Trump or vainglorious performances from some of its reporters and pundits.
Wednesday evening’s broadcast is virtually guaranteed to draw a large audience, especially with the attention on Tuesday’s verdict. Beyond that, what are the big things to watch?
What will Trump say about the E. Jean Carroll verdict?
As if the town hall was not set to be dramatic enough, it now comes on the heels of a new bombshell: the decision by a New York jury to hold Trump liable for the sexual abuse of columnist E. Jean Carroll in the mid-1990s — and for defaming her by accusing her of lying about those events.
The jury awarded $5 million in damages against Trump, even as it did not find him liable for the most serious charge — that he raped Carroll.
A statement from Trump’s campaign reacted by blaming “a never-ending witch-hunt” and a “bogus case…targeting President Trump.”
Trump himself took to social media to complain about a verdict he deemed a “disgrace.” He also contended that the nine-person jury, sitting in the city where he was born and has spent most of his life, was “from an anti-Trump area which is probably the worst place in the U.S. for me to get a fair ‘trial.’”
Trump might have plenty more to say about the matter before he appears at the town hall, but a repeat of his previous attacks on Carroll’s character seems at least plausible — as well as politically risky, given how the whole matter could repel female voters, in particular.
CNN would also have to push back immediately on some such allegations from the former president, otherwise, it could be seen as acquiescing in defamation.
Will Trump play nice with CNN or lambaste them?
Trump has always gained some political advantage with conservative voters by the sheer ferocity of his attacks upon the media.
Now the question is whether he will use Wednesday night’s appearance in order to continue that approach with CNN, or whether he will adopt a more orthodox demeanor.
Perhaps predictably, most signs favor the former.
In a TruthSocial post on Tuesday, Trump promoted his appearance by saying that CNN was “rightfully desperate to get those fantastic (TRUMP!) ratings once again.”
The former president did include a flimsy olive branch, suggesting that the event could “be the beginning of a New & Vibrant CNN, with no more Fake News.”
But then, he added, “or it could turn into a disaster for all, including me.”
Beyond Trump’s hype, there are serious issues at play.
There is a widespread belief in the media industry that CNN is seeking to reposition itself closer to the center under its current CEO and chairman Chris Licht, who took those positions last year.
Trump, too, has some incentive to reach beyond his base rather than just play the greatest, media-bashing hits.
What if he repeats election lies?
Trump has never backed away from his fiction about the 2020 election being stolen from him. Indeed, he often repeats such allegations, both online and in his campaign appearances.
CNN is under a journalistic obligation to point out that Trump’s allegations are untrue. The network would obviously want to put a particularly wide berth between itself and the kind of wild allegations against Dominion Voting Systems that recently caused Fox News to agree to pay out almost $800 million in settlement of a defamation case.
But dealing with these issues is trickier than it sounds.
CNN’s moderator, Kaitlan Collins, has to face down Trump’s untruths without getting into a prolonged verbal tussle that might derail the whole event.
From Trump’s perspective, there are some in his circle who would rather see him move away from the 2020 false allegations, which draw in no new supporters and open him up to the charge that he is looking to the past rather than the future — even as a declared 2024 candidate.
Trump himself, however, has remained impervious to that argument.
Will his main target be President Biden or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?
Trump has been increasingly vociferous in attacking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in recent weeks.
Having apparently settled on “DeSanctimonious” as his nickname of choice, a recent social media post from Trump declared the Florida governor “a total flameout” who is “dropping like a rock in the Polls.”
As is often the case with Trump, there is an element of truth in the hyperbole. DeSantis is lagging Trump badly in recent polls.
DeSantis has not officially entered the race yet, so he is expected to do so within the next month or so. Trump will want to keep the heat on him, hoping to snuff out his rival’s candidacy early.
The question is whether he prioritizes that line of attack over targeting President Joe Biden himself.
Trump has had some good news recently against Biden — most notably, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday that showed him defeating his successor by 7 points in a head-to-head match-up.
Attacks on Biden are, in a sense, a simpler proposition for Trump. They unite the GOP base in a way that attacks upon DeSantis do not.
How does Kaitlan Collins do?
The town hall event is a big opportunity for Collins, a rising star with the network. But it comes with plenty of risks, too.
Collins made her name as a White House Correspondent for CNN during Trump’s tenure. She was widely praised during that time for the quality and tenacity of her reporting. She also largely avoided some of the more theatrical attacks on the president that others in the press corps favored.
Prior to her time at CNN, Collins had covered the White House for The Daily Caller, the conservative website co-founded by Tucker Carlson.
Still, she was hardly in the Trump team’s good graces. At one White House press briefing soon after Trump had lost the election, his Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany branded her an “activist” — a charge Collins immediately denied.
Collins is clearly in the ascendant at CNN, where she co-anchors the network’s relatively new morning show, “CNN This Morning.”
The show has gone through its share of dramas, culminating in the firing of co-host Don Lemon. But Collins herself has not been diminished by any of that.
If she does well on Wednesday, it will show she can handle the biggest occasions for the network.
But moderating a live event with a figure so unpredictable as Trump is always going to be turbulent.
If the stakes are high politically for Trump, they are just as high professionally for Collins.