May 11, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Trump's blast radius

Illustration of a press microphone with a bomb as the top of the microphone. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The fallout from former President Trump's CNN town hall has been swift, sweeping and contentious — delighting his most loyal supporters but horrifying those hoping to slow his runaway train to the GOP nomination.

Why it matters: The chaotic performance, which produced a firehose of lies, was a reminder of Trump's staggering gravitational pull. With him at the center of the political and media universe, there's virtually nowhere to hide.

Driving the news: Republican senators, generally a Trump-skeptical bloc compared to the GOP base, appeared demoralized today as they were peppered with questions about it.

  • "Where do I begin?" Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) told reporters when asked why he wouldn't support Trump in the primary. "Republicans are in a winning mood. We want to win. We know he's the shortest path to losing."
  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), asked about Trump teasing pardons for a "large portion" of the Jan. 6 defendants, responded: "If you're asking me do I think you should pardon the people who engaged in rioting in here, no."
  • "It looked like a lot of Democratic campaign ads being written last night," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Thune is right: A source familiar with the Biden campaign's thinking told Axios' Sophia Cai that Trump's town hall provided "weeks' work of damning content in one hour."

Zoom out: The contagion from Trump's unfiltered performance is seeping well beyond the campaign.

  • Trump urged Republicans negotiating the debt ceiling to allow the U.S. to default if Democrats don't agree to spending cuts — an extreme position that has divided House conservatives at a critical moment for GOP unity.
  • CNN itself is facing upheaval, with its own senior media reporter writing: "It's hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening."

The intrigue: The Trump campaign is largely thrilled with how the night went, but the former president's lawyers may be wishing he'd kept his mouth shut when grilled on his legal troubles.

  • Ahead of a charging decision this summer by prosecutors, Trump said he had no regrets about his now-infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — claiming he "owed me votes" in the 2020 election.
  • Trump admitted more directly than before that he knowingly took government documents from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, now the subject of a criminal investigation by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith.
  • E. Jean Carroll, the writer who won a verdict against Trump in a sexual abuse and defamation lawsuit this week, is considering suing him again for defamation after his "vile" attacks on her last night.
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