Donald Trump remains Donald Trump
His 70-minute performance in New Hampshire was a stark reminder that the ex-president has one speed and that his second show mirrors his debut. As always, he is a celebrity performer and remains, even after leaving office, the center of gravity of American politics.
CNN's decision of giving him an unfiltered platform in prime time was a callback from the 2016 election campaign. Even though the moderator Kaitlan Collins interjected repeatedly to try and cut him off or to correct him.
Trump spent so much time defending and discussing himself, he barely mentioned President Joe Biden’s record – which is what people close to Trump wanted him to emphasize. He was more disciplined with his expected primary opponent.
Takeaway: Here are 5 key points.
Trump will not let go of his lies regarding 2020 or January 6,
Trump has shown that he is not ready to move on from his falsehood about the 2020 elections being stolen.
Collins' first questions were about Trump refusing to accept that he lost in 2020 and his false allegations of fraud.
Trump called the election that he lost "rigged" and said that if you looked at the results of that election as well as what took place during it, you would see what was happening.
Trump said he would be 'inclined to' pardon'many of' the rioters who were arrested after the attack by a pro Trump mob on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, during the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. People close to Trump were pleased that he avoided making a clear promise.
A person with knowledge of the plan said that he also brought a list with him that included his tweets and statements that day. This was an idea of his. Collins asked him what he did during the violent hours. He lied. He said that he didn't owe an apology to Vice President Mike Pence whose life had been threatened by the mob.
Trump's campaign has become more and more centered around the events at the Capitol as time goes on. Wednesday night was not an exception.
He said, 'A wonderful day' on Jan. 6th.
The event served as a reminder that, at least among Republicans, embracing the violent violence of that particular day is no longer considered disqualifying. Trump's team was happy with the way he spent the time during the townhall discussing the post-election period.
The GOP audience revealed the location of the base, but did not stack the deck.
The regular interruptions by the audience on Trump's behalf were like the laugh track of a sitcom. This gave him momentum in the room and for the TV audience, and it stifled Collins when she tried to interrupt with facts and corrections.
The Republican crowd in New Hampshire ate up Trump's shtick, no matter how vulgar, profane, or politically incorrect it was.
He will pardon "a large portion" of the rioters from Jan. 6. Applause.
He ridiculed the detailed allegations of rape by E. Jean Carroll, calling them 'hanky panky in a dressing-room'. It doesn't matter that a New York court found him guilty of sexual abuse and defamation, awarding Carroll damages totaling $5 million.
Carroll being called a "wack job" Applause, laughter.
Because 'I am not president', I flip-flop on the use of leverage to raise debt ceilings. More laughter.
The cheers showed the current mentality of the Republican base which is ready for confrontation with the media, with Democrats and anyone who stands in the way of Republicans gaining power.
Collins had to fight both the crowd and her opponent at the same time.
Trump told her, at one point: 'You are a bad person', echoing his words against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The town-hall format was a stage that Trump used to portray himself as the Republican candidate -- 'Mister President,' as he was addressed repeatedly -- as well as the outsider. He recreated the conditions of his previous two campaigns.
Democrats also cheered as they looked to the General Election
As he was returning from New York, Biden's staff had switched the TVs in Air Force One to MSNBC. It didn't stop his team from watching and cheering with the Republican audience as the town hall unfolded.
Trump called Jan. 6, a "beautiful" day. He called the Roe v. Wade decision a "great victory." He refused to say whether he thought Ukraine would win its war with Russia. He spoke again about the way that the rich and famous are able to get what they want. He said, 'Women will let you'. He refused to rule it out that he would reimpose one of the most divisive and incendiary policies of his tenure in office, namely the deliberate separation of families at the border.
Trump's responses may have been well received in the hall, but they could be incorporated into Democratic messaging over the next 18-months.
The Biden campaign began analyzing segments that could be quickly turned into digital ads as Trump took positions that would repel the type of swing voters who Biden won over in 2020.
Biden tweeted shortly after the event concluded. Do you want to continue with this for four more years? It read. It was a donation request. The message was also intended to remind people that the Biden campaign for 2024 is likely going to focus on Trump.
Trump avoided taking a position on a federal ban on abortion
Trump was perhaps the Republican who had the most influence on the Supreme Court decision last year to overturn Roe V. Wade. He appointed the three justices of the Supreme Court who authored the majority opinion. He has blamed the abortion politics in private for the Republican underperformance in 2022's midterms, and has been cautious in his early 2024 campaign.
His team spent a lot of time before the town hall honing an answer they knew would be asked. Would he support such a ban and for how many weeks?
On Wednesday, it was hard to miss his repeated euphemisms and dodges.
He began by saying that removing Roe v. Wade would be a great thing for the pro-life movement.
He didn't get any more specific than that. He said that he felt 'honored' to have achieved what he did -- a phrase Democrats quickly noted as potential material for future advertisements -- and that the victory was a "great one."
Trump's Republican opponent, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six week abortion ban in Florida recently, putting Trump on the right side of an issue which could resonate with evangelicals. Trump didn't mention DeSantis for more than an hour after the event and only when a voter prompted him to do so. Trump said, 'I believe he should relax and take it easier and think about his future'.
Trump refused to confirm if he'd sign a federal prohibition, trying to paint Democrats as radicals. He also pledged to support exemptions for rapes, incest, and motherhood. He said, 'I'll negotiate to make people happy.'
Collins insisted, 'I want to give you another chance.'
He evaded for one last time. He said, 'Make an agreement that will be beneficial.'
His comments about investigations increased his legal risk
The heated discussion between Trump and Collins centered around the investigation by the special counsel into Trump's possession of more than 300 classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago private club after leaving office.
It was in this area that he got himself into the most trouble.
Trump said, "I was there, I took what I had, and it's declassified." This is despite contradictory statements from former officials. Trump has insisted, despite contradictory statements by his own former officials that he maintained a standing directive automatically declassifying all documents that left the Oval Office for the residence of the president.
'I did it on my own accord, and I didn't hide it.' Trump stated that the boxes were outside the White House and that people took pictures of them. He implied that the public was aware that the boxes contained presidential material or classified documents (which they did not).
Jack Smith will be very interested to learn that Trump did not rule out definitively whether he had shown classified material to others, something about which investigators have questioned witnesses, notably in relation to a map containing sensitive intelligence.
He added, "I would have the rights to." He said, "I have the rights to do anything I want with them."
He also defended his call with Georgia's Secretary of State in which he claimed he was 'looking' for enough votes to win. Trump stated that he had not asked him to do anything.
Trump's team and former president are equally concerned about the investigation into the documents. He wore this on his face, and it was evident in his words and actions on stage in New Hampshire.
(Authors: Shane Goldmacher & Maggie Haberman/(c.2021 The New York Times Company).