Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, once again refused to concede that he lost the 2020 election and repeated false claims about it being stolen at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
Taking questions from GOP primary voters at the town hall moderated by “CNN This Morning” anchor Kaitlan Collins, Trump remained defiant about the 2020 election as well as the myriad investigations into him – making clear that he’s sticking to the script he’s delivered over the past two years on conservative media.
The town hall at Saint Anselm College – his first appearance on CNN since 2016 – came as unprecedented legal clouds hang over him as he seeks to become only the second commander in chief ever elected to two nonconsecutive terms. New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation GOP primary, is also home to many swing voters and is a state he lost in both 2016 and 2020 after winning the primaries.
The audience of Republicans and undeclared voters who plan to vote in the GOP primary cheered Trump throughout the evening, including when he attacked Tuesday’s jury verdict that found he sexually abused former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll. Trump mocked Carroll on Wednesday while downplaying the significance of the $5 million the jury awarded her for battery and defamation.
The former president said he would pardon “a large portion” of the rioters at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and even pulled out a printout of his own tweets from that day in an attempt to deflect blame as Collins pressed him on why he waited three hours before telling the rioters to leave the Capitol.
“I am inclined to pardon many of them,” Trump said Wednesday night.
When Collins pressed Trump on the Manhattan federal jury finding Trump sexually abused Carroll in a luxury department store dressing room in 1996, Trump suggested it was helping his poll numbers.
When asked if the jury’s decision would deter women from voting for him, the former president said, “No, I don’t think so.”
Trump insulted Carroll, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even Collins when she pressed him on a question about why he hadn’t returned classified documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago.
“It’s very simple – you’re a nasty person, I’ll tell you,” Trump said on stage.
Trump also took questions from New Hampshire voters on the economy and policy issues, such as abortion. The former president, who solidified the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that struck down Roe v. Wade, repeatedly declined to say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban if he won a second term.
Trump suggested Republicans should refuse to raise the debt limit if the White House does not agree to spending cuts.
“I say to the Republicans out there – congressmen, senators – if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default, and I don’t believe they’re going to do a default because I think the Democrats will absolutely cave, will absolutely cave because you don’t want to have that happen, but it’s better than what we’re doing right now because we’re spending money like drunken sailors,” Trump said.
When Collins asked him to clarify whether the US should default if the White House doesn’t agree to cuts, Trump said, “We might as well do it now than do it later.”
Multiple investigations into Trump
Trump pleaded not guilty last month to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Trump also faces potential legal peril in both Washington, DC – where a special counsel is leading a pair of investigations – and in Georgia, where the Fulton County district attorney plans to announce charges this summer from the investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election in the Peach State.
Still, the twice-impeached former president has repeatedly said that any charges will not stop him from running for president, dismissing all of the investigations as politically motivated witch hunts. That’s a view many GOP voters share, according to recent surveys. Nearly 70% of Republican primary voters in a recent NBC News poll said investigations into the former president “are politically motivated” and that “no other candidate is like him, we must support him.”
Trump was pressed on the investigation into his handling of classified documents and why he didn’t return all of the documents in his possession after receiving a subpoena. He responded by pointing out the classified documents found at the homes of others – including President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence. But they both returned the documents once they discovered they had them in their possession.
The FBI obtained a search warrant and retrieved more than 100 classified documents from Trump’s Florida resort in August 2022, which came after he had received a subpoena to return documents in June 2022 and after his attorney had asserted that all classified material in his possession had been returned.
Asked during the town hall whether he showed the classified documents to anyone at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said, “Not really.”
Trump doesn’t say if he wants Ukraine to win
The former president would not say whether he wants Russia or Ukraine to win the war during Wednesday’s town hall, instead saying that he wants the war to end.
“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing. I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people,” he said.
When asked again whether or not the former president wants Ukraine to win, Trump did not answer directly, but instead claimed that he would be able to end the war in 24 hours.
“Russians and Ukrainians, I want them to stop dying,” Trump said. “And I’ll have that done in 24 hours.”
Trump said he thinks that “(Russian President Vladimir) Putin made a mistake” by invading Ukraine, but he stopped short of saying that Putin is a war criminal.
That’s something that “should be discussed later,” Trump said.
“If you say he’s a war criminal, it’s going to be a lot tougher to make a deal to make this thing stopped,” he said.
Trump leads in GOP primary polls
While a handful of rivals have entered the Republican presidential primary – and Trump’s biggest potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has not yet officially launched a bid – Trump has maintained a healthy lead in early GOP primary polling. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday, 43% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents named Trump unprompted when asked who they would like to see the party nominate in 2024, compared with 20% naming DeSantis, and 2% or less naming any other candidate.
Trump’s participation in the town hall was indicative of a broader campaign strategy to try to expand his appeal beyond conservative media viewers, CNN’s Kristen Holmes reported earlier Wednesday. He’s surrounded himself with a more organized team and has been making smaller retail politics stops while scaling back larger rallies – signs of a more traditional campaign than his 2016 and 2020 operations. He lost that 2020 race by about 7 million votes, although he continues to falsely claim it was stolen from him – claims he stuck to on Wednesday night.
There have been warning signs for the GOP that the obsession with the 2020 election isn’t palatable beyond the base. Many of Trump’s handpicked candidates who embraced his election lies in swing states lost in last year’s midterm elections. And his advisers acknowledge he still has work to do to engage with Republican voters outside of his loyal base of supporters, multiple sources told CNN.
But that didn’t mean Trump was ready to acknowledge the reality that he lost the 2020 election. And if he becomes the GOP nominee in 2024, Trump said Wednesday he would not commit to accepting the results regardless of the outcome, saying that he would do so if he believes “it’s an honest election.”
“If I think it’s an honest election, I would be honored to,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional details from the town hall.