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Even before CNN’s town hall with Donald Trump devolved last week into a superspreader event for the former president’s lies, the New Hampshire venue that hosted the made-for-TV spectacle defended its involvement.
In its prebuttal, Saint Anselm College touted its decades-long history of “enthusiastically and impartially” hosting presidential candidates. “Democracy depends on an educated citizenry,” college president Joseph A. Favazza said. “Here at Saint Anselm, we are proud to play an important and unique role in this regard.”
After the event, the blowback was swift and fierce, as media critics and political observers faulted CNN for the way it curated a friendly in-studio audience for Trump and lent him the network’s massive platform. His commentary included false and foul claims that reportedly left some attendees “quietly disgusted or bewildered,” even as others clapped and cheered.
While the college and the media outlet stood by their respective decisions to host the event and broadcast it live, one particularly galling moment led Saint Anselm to issue a direct rebuke.
That moment came when Trump mocked writer E. Jean Carroll after a jury found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming her – and the audience laughed.
In a follow-up statement Friday, the college said it found Trump’s remarks about the civil trial “deeply” disturbing.
“Equally disturbing was the audience’s reaction, nearly all of whom were not members of the Saint Anselm community, with laughter,” the statement said. “The college does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind, including sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual harassment.”
Saint Anselm spokesperson Paul J. Pronovost said 80 of the event’s 350 tickets were allotted to the college, which distributed them to students, staffers, and guests. No one affiliated with the college was seen acting inappropriately during the event, and there haven’t been any subsequent reports of inappropriate behavior, he said. (One student has been harassed on social media over screenshots that appear to show the student gasping, not laughing or clapping, during the event, he noted.)
The college’s follow-up statement referred to Trump as “a divisive figure” who “faces legal trouble” and “continues inflammatory rhetoric.” But it defended the decision to host him: He’s the GOP frontrunner, so turning him away “would betray” Saint Anselm’s “responsibility toward impartiality.”
That raises uncomfortable questions: How does Saint Anselm square its responsibility toward political impartiality with its responsibility to reject sexual violence? And what about its responsibility to reject antidemocratic lies?
“Without question, this candidate has tested normalcy and decorum within the American political process,” Pronovost told the Globe, “so it is fair to ask if he should be treated differently as a result. And that would be the easy path for the college. However, he is the leading Republican candidate for president, with an active and loyal voter base, and as such must be vetted in an equal and impartial manner as all other major candidates.”
“In a Democracy, it is ultimately the people who decide, and it is the role of journalists and institutions like Saint Anselm to place the same scrutiny on this candidate in the same manner as all others,” Pronovost continued. “To do anything different would be the true disservice. To be sure, this individual provided a test of our civic mission and it was important for the college not to be distracted from its duty.”
The Big Picture
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Joseph A. Favazza’s last name and to include an additional statement from Saint Anselm.