Former President Donald Trump’s appearance on CNN tonight was already going to be a blockbuster — a primetime TV appearance in front of a live audience on a network he regularly lambasts.
But with a Manhattan federal jury finding him liable in the sexual abuse of writer E. Jean Carroll, the stakes for the GOP frontrunner were instantly raised, virtually ensuring he will be pressed on issue by a network that has historically had an adversarial relationship with the former president.
Trump’s camp anticipates that Tuesday’s verdict, which found him liable for sexually abusing Carroll, for which she was awarded $5 million in damages, will come up. But they also see the CNN town hall as an opportunity to reach a major national audience, according to a person familiar with their thinking. And they also see political opportunity ahead. The Trump campaign is expected to fundraise off the Carroll decision, that person said.
The verdict comes on the eve of Trump’s town hall in New Hampshire moderated by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, a 31-year-old anchor and correspondent who gained a reputation for challenging Trump while she covered the White House.
Trump signaled that he would take a combative approach to any questions around the case, writing on Truth Social immediately after the verdict that he had “ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA” who Carroll was, and that the “VERDICT IS A DISGRACE – A CONTINUATION OF THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME!” He had spent part of the day recording policy videos.
Trump advisers had been negotiating for weeks with CNN, which approached them earlier this year about the idea of doing a sit-down. Trump’s decision to agree to the town hall was seen as an implicit jab at Fox News, which he has clashed with in recent months, and at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has eschewed interviews with mainstream media outlets in favor of friendly conservative ones.
The verdict immediately split Republicans on Capitol Hill with some saying it should give voters pause and others arguing that it was a continuation of biased prosecution against the former president. That schism quickly became evident among Republicans on the campaign trail as well.
Vivek Ramaswamy, who quickly defended Trump after news broke of his criminal indictment a month ago, on Tuesday did the same.
“I wasn’t one of the jurors and I’m not privy to all of the facts that they have, but I’ll say what everyone else is privately thinking,” Ramaswamy said in a statement to POLITICO. “If the defendant weren’t named Donald Trump, would there even be a lawsuit?”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who called for Trump to drop out of the race after his indictment, said the jury’s verdict should be taken seriously “and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.”
“Over the course of my over 25 years of experience in the courtroom, I have seen firsthand how a cavalier and arrogant contempt for the rule of law can backfire,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott didn’t speak to the verdict.
Trump’s support and fundraising have only strengthened in the aftermath of past legal flashpoints, including his indictment over his alleged involvement in a hush money payment scheme to a porn star.
Sarah Longwell, a political strategist and founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, said she conducted a focus group last week in which two-time Trump voters were asked about the Carroll lawsuit. Just one of the seven voters, a woman, had heard of it — “and she didn’t believe her,” Longwell said.
Throughout other recent focus groups with Republican voters, Longwell and her staff have remarked internally about how Trump’s support is “the fiercest” among women who have already supported him twice.
“I wish things were different, but I can’t see this changing anything in a Republican primary,” Longwell said of the sexual abuse verdict Tuesday. “The things that are going to change anything in a Republican primary are if the field — his opponents for 2024 — show some political backbone and political talent and ability to capture some of the oxygen that he is sucking up.”
A recent NBC News poll found that two thirds of Republican voters believe the investigations are “politically motivated attempt to stop Trump.” But some party strategists are convinced it could hamper his prospects in a general election where he would have to reach beyond his loyal base.
RNC chair Ronna McDaniel was pressed by Fox News’ Martha McCallum over whether or not the Carroll ruling or the hush money scheme verdict could have a negative impact on suburban and women voters. McDaniel deflected, and said that women are more focused on President Joe Biden’s disappointing administration.
“I think we have a long way until the primary process begins, we have debates in August,” McDaniel said. “I think a lot of women are incredibly disappointed with the Biden administration so they’ll be looking at the Republican nominee, whoever that is, to put forward an opposing vision and one that will help suburban moms and kids and families across the country.”
But the question, which McCallum repeated again with other guests, underscores how that cohort of female and suburban women voters could potentially impact Trump. While Trump did better with women in 2020 than in 2016, Biden led among women in the last election by 11 points.
How Trump will handle discussing the lawsuit at the CNN town hall is hardly a mystery, said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist.
“He will spin it, and we could write that script right now,” Carney said soon after the verdict was issued. “‘Judge who hates me, a lady made this up, and blah, blah, blah.’ He will definitely have something to say about it.”
And he did, following that script almost exactly in posts he made on his social media website throughout the evening Tuesday.
But for a candidate who won the 2016 election mere weeks after a recording was published of him bragging about being able to sexually assault women, “none of this is new,” Carney said, and it’s unlikely voters are still trying to make up their mind about Trump’s character.
“Do I think any different eyeball is going to watch this show that wasn’t going to watch it beforehand? No,” Carney said of the Wednesday town hall. “Do I think any undecided voter was thinking ‘I don’t know about that Trump guy, I’m going to tune into CNN and see what he has to say?’”