Former President Trump’s CNN town hall was the talk of most social platforms Wednesday night.
Many viewers were aghast as he steamrolled over questions from moderator Kaitlan Collins, with Trump surrogates and campaign officials touting the town hall as a “big win” for the candidate as the crowd cheered and applauded Trump’s responses to Collins’ questions.
CNN CEO Chris Licht, aware of the backlash and social media furor, addressed the reaction on the cable news channel’s Thursday morning editorial call, audio of which obtained.
“We all know covering Donald Trump is messy, and tricky, and will continue to be messy and tricky, but it’s our job. We’re going to do it fairly, toughly and aggressively as Kaitlan did last night,” Licht said on the call. “I absolutely unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night, because it laid bare and created in the words of Joe Scarborough, ‘a political earthquake,’ and that people woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before. And if someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, it damn well should be on CNN.”
Licht opened the call by taking the time to praise Collins for her composure and questioning, and called her a “true rock star.” Collins is said to be the favorite to take over CNN’s 9 p.m. hour, solidifying CNN’s primetime lineup even if it means dismantling the new morning show put into place just a few months ago (with Collins’ co-host Don Lemon ousted last month).
“I want to kick off by congratulating Kaitlan for what I can only call a masterful performance last night,” Licht said on the call. “I couldn’t be more proud of her and the team that supported us on the ground and back home. It’s tough to imagine anyone navigating such a tricky assignment with more ease than Kaitlan. She asked tough questions, followed up, fact checked, fact checked again in real time. And as you can see, that was not an easy feat.”
But he also acknowledged the elephant in the room, telling the editorial staff that, “I am aware that there has been people with opinions slash backlash and that is absolutely expected.”
“And I will say this as clearly as I possibly can: You do not have to like the former president’s answers, but you can’t say that we didn’t get them. Kaitlan pressed him again and again, and made news, made a lot of news,” Licht said. “I think it’s very important that we learned his positions on Ukraine, January 6, abortion, the election results, pardoning people… our job is to get those answers and to hold him accountable in a way that no news organization has done literally any years.”
As for the audience applause and laughter as Trump took aim at E. Jean Carroll, Ukraine, and even Collins herself, CNN noted that because the town hall was tied to the GOP primary, the audience was made up of Republicans and independents that were likely to vote in the Republican primary.
“While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story,” Licht said. “Because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America, and the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist. Just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists.”