Donald Trump is still Donald Trump.
His 70 minutes onstage in New Hampshire served as a vivid reminder that the former president has only one speed, and that his second act mirrors his first. He is, as ever, a celebrity performance artist and, even out of office, remains the center of gravity in American politics.
CNN’s decision to give him an unfiltered prime-time platform was a callback to the 2016 campaign, even as the moderator, Kaitlan Collins, persistently interjected to try to cut him off or correct him.
Trump was so focused on discussing and defending himself that he barely touched on President Joe Biden’s record — which people close to Trump want him to focus on. But he was disciplined when it came to his chief expected primary rival.
Here are five takeaways.
Trump won’t let go of his lies about 2020 or Jan. 6
If viewers were expecting Trump to have moved on from his falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from him, he demonstrated once again, right out of the gate, that he very much hasn’t.
The first questions asked by Collins were about Trump’s refusal to accept his loss in 2020, and his false claims of fraud.
“I think that, when you look at that result and when you look at what happened during that election, unless you’re a very stupid person, you see what happens,” Trump said, calling the election he lost “rigged.”
Trump later said he was “inclined” to pardon “many” of the rioters arrested on Jan. 6, 2021, after the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob during certification of Biden’s Electoral College win. His avoidance of an unequivocal promise pleased people close to him.
He also came armed with a list of his own Twitter posts and statements from that day — an idea that was his, a person familiar with the planning said. He lied about his inaction that day as Collins pressed him about what he was doing during the hours of violence. And he said he did not owe Vice President Mike Pence, whose life was threatened by the mob, an apology.
As time has worn on, Trump has increasingly wrapped his arms around what took place at the Capitol and incorporated it into his campaign. Wednesday night was no exception.
“A beautiful day,” he said of Jan. 6.
It was a reminder that embracing the deadly violence of that day — at least for Republicans — is no longer seen as disqualifying. Privately, Trump’s team said they were happy with how he handled the extensive time spent on the postelection period during the town hall.
The GOP audience stacked the deck, but revealed where the base is
The audience’s regular interruptions on behalf of Trump were like a laugh track on a sitcom. It built momentum for him in the room — and onscreen for the television audience — and stifled Collins as she repeatedly tried to interrupt him with facts and correctives.
No matter how vulgar, profane or politically incorrect Trump was, the Republican crowd in New Hampshire audibly ate up the shtick of the decades-long showman.
He would pardon a "large portion" of Jan. 6 rioters. Applause.
He mocked the detailed accusations of rape from E. Jean Carroll as made up "hanky-panky in a dressing room." Laughter. No matter that a New York jury held him liable for sexual abuse and defamation this week, awarding Carroll $5 million in damages.
Calling Carroll a "wack job." Applause and laughs.
Flip-flopping on using the debt ceiling for leverage, because "I'm not president." More laughs.
The cheers revealed the current psyche of the Republican base, which is eager for confrontation: with the press, with Democrats, with anyone standing in the way of Republicans taking power.
It made for tough sledding for Collins, who was like an athlete playing an away game on hostile turf: She had to battle the crowd and the candidate simultaneously.
“You’re a nasty person,” Trump said to her at one point, echoing the line he used against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.
The town-hall format felt like a set piece for Trump that he leveraged to cast himself as both the putative Republican incumbent — “Mister president,” he was repeatedly addressed as — and the outsider, recreating conditions from his two previous campaigns.
Republicans cheered, but so did Democrats looking to the general election
Biden’s team had changed the televisions on Air Force One from CNN to MSNBC as he returned from New York on Wednesday evening. But that didn’t mean his political team was not eagerly watching the town hall unfold, and cheering along with the Republican audience.
Trump defended Jan. 6 as a “beautiful day.” He hailed the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a “great victory.” He wouldn’t say if he hoped Ukraine would win the war against Russia. He talked again about how the rich and famous get their way. “Women let you,” he said. And he refused to rule out reimposing one of the most incendiary and divisive policies of his term in office: purposefully separating families at the border.
Trump’s answers played well in the hall but could all find their way into Democratic messaging in the next 18 months.
Late Wednesday, the Biden campaign was already figuring out what segments could be turned quickly into digital ads, seeing Trump staking out positions that would turn off the kind of swing voters that Biden won in 2020.
Shortly after the event ended, Biden issued a tweet. “Do you want four more years of that?” it read. It was a request for donations. It was also a reminder how much of the Biden 2024 campaign is likely to be about Trump.
Trump aggressively dodged taking a stance on a federal abortion ban
Trump is perhaps the single Republican most responsible for the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. He appointed three of the court’s justices who powered the majority opinion. But he has privately blamed abortion politics for Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterms and has treaded carefully in the early months of his 2024 run.
Before the town hall, his team spent considerable time honing his answer to a question they knew he would be asked: Would he support a federal ban, and at how many weeks?
His repeated dodges and euphemisms were hard to miss on Wednesday.
“Getting rid of Roe v. Wade was an incredible thing for pro-life,” he began.
That was about as specific as he would get. He said he was “honored to have done what I did” — a line Democrats had quickly flagged as potential fodder for future ads — and that it was a “great victory.”
Trump’s Republican rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis, recently signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, getting to Trump’s right on an issue that could resonate with evangelical voters. Trump did not even mention DeSantis until more than an hour into the event, and only after prodding from a voter. “I think he ought to relax and take it easy and think about the future,” Trump urged.
In refusing to say if he would sign a federal ban, Trump tried to cast Democrats as radical and pledged that he supported exemptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. “What I’ll do is negotiate so people are happy,” he said.
“I just want to give you one more chance,” Collins pressed.
He dodged one final time. “Make a deal that’s going to be good,” he said.
He deepened his legal jeopardy with comments on investigations
The most heated exchange that Trump had with Collins was over the special counsel investigation into his possession of hundreds of presidential records, including more than 300 individual classified documents, at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, after he left office.
And it was the area in which he walked himself into the biggest problems.
“I was there and I took what I took and it gets declassified,” said Trump, who has maintained, despite contradictions from his own former officials, that he had a standing order automatically declassifying documents that left the Oval Office and went to the president’s residence.
“I had every right to do it, I didn’t make a secret of it. You know, the boxes were stationed outside the White House, people were taking pictures of it,” Trump said, intimating that people were somehow aware that presidential material and classified documents were in them (they were not).
In what will be of great interest to the special counsel, Jack Smith, Trump would not definitively rule out whether he showed classified material to people, something investigators have queried witnesses about, in particular in connection with a map with sensitive intelligence.
“Not really,” he hedged, adding, “I would have the right to.” At another point he declared, “I have the right to do whatever I want with them.”
He also defended himself for a call he had with Georgia’s secretary of state in which he said he was trying to “find” enough votes to win. “I didn’t ask him to find anything,” Trump said.
There are few issues that worry the Trump team and the former president as much as the documents investigation, and Trump wore that on his face and in his words on the stage in New Hampshire.