CNN's Kaitlan Collins tried, and tried, to rebut Trump's election lies

Kaitlan Collins and Donald Trump on CNN
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During a roughly 70-minute-long forum with likely Republican voters in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins attempted to correct inaccurate claims made by former president Donald Trump about many topics - but she found her rebuttals falling on deaf ears.

As the crowd cheered throughout Trump's boasts and falsehoods, Collins repeatedly pushed back when Trump said the 2020 election was "stolen."

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"The election was not rigged, Mr. President," Collins said. "You can't keep saying that all night long."

But he did. As Trump made unfounded claims about the 2020 election, Collins interrupted him and said, "Mr. President, I have to stop you there because there is no evidence of that."

Trump said that only "unless somebody is very stupid" would they believe the 2020 election was fair. "I know you very well," he told Collins. "You're not stupid at all, but you perhaps are given an agenda or you have an agenda."

During the Trump administration, Collins developed a reputation for her tough questioning of the former president and his aides. In July 2018, Collins was barred from a Rose Garden news conference after persistently asking the president questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen at an Oval Office photo op.

On Wednesday night, Collins pressed Trump on whether he wants Ukraine to defeat Russia, but he wouldn't respond directly. "Do you want Ukraine to win this war?" the journalist asked. "I don't think in terms of winning and losing," Trump responded. Collins continued: "Can you say if you want Ukraine or Russia to win this war?" Responded Trump: "I want everybody to stop dying. They're dying, Russians and Ukrainians." Collins concluded, "You won't say that you want Ukraine to win."

Trump seemed to have a significant home-field advantage over Collins and CNN among the assembled audience in New Hampshire, which will host the first Republican presidential primary in 2024.

The crowd roared with laughter when Trump called Collins "nasty" during a back-and-forth about Trump taking documents with him to Mar-a-Lago, where he resides in Florida. During the exchange, Trump grew frustrated with Collins. "Are you ready? Are you ready? Can I talk?" Trump asked. "Yeah, what's the answer," Collins retorted. "Do you mind?" the former president responded.

"I would like for you to answer the question. That's why I asked it," Collins responded.

"You are a nasty person," Trump said.

When Trump told Collins, "you don't know the subject," Collins disagreed, to which Trump spoke to the audience, saying, "She doesn't understand."

Collins also attempted to push back when Trump said he was entitled to declassify and take documents. "I've got to stop you right there, though," she said. "The Presidential Records Act, which is not well known to a lot of people, I read it - it does not say that you can take documents with you. It says they are the property of the federal government."

Audience reaction to the forum was mostly negative on social media, and among some CNN staffers who were watching and spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the network. They acknowledged the unenviable task Collins faced.

"Kaitlan is in a no-win situation," said one CNN staffer. "I can't believe anyone thought this was a good idea."

"Total debacle," another CNN staffer said.

Collins is among the network's brightest young stars, though the morning show she co-hosts, "CNN This Morning," has been beset by turmoil following the ouster of Don Lemon.

The forum served as something of a prime-time tryout for Collins, who is being considered for a full-time role at 9 p.m., according to a source close to the network.

The town hall also served as a key moment for CNN leader Chris Licht, who has made it a priority to increase the number of Republican guests on the network and to refocus the network to serve as a provider of impartial news. During Licht's tenure, the network has parted ways with several prominent on-air personalities who were known for their criticism of the Trump administration. It's not clear whether the town hall will improve the network's standing with Republicans, who have made CNN a frequent target of criticism.

"I thought this #CNNTownhall with Trump would be bad but it's much worse than I thought it would be," tweeted MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan. "The lack of follow-ups. The audience on his side. Sheesh."

But one of Collins's colleagues, commentator Van Jones, gave her positive marks as a moderator. Collins, he said, "did a masterful job of fact-checking a lie machine in real time."

On Wednesday night, CNN issued a statement praising Collins' performance. "Tonight Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist," the network said. "She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner. That is CNN's role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account."

Collins began the conversation by explaining why CNN was hosting the event, which is part of the network's traditional slate of town hall forums involving presidential candidates - but represented Trump's first appearance on the network since the 2016 presidential campaign.

"He is currently leading the Republican field while also facing multiple criminal investigations and an indictment," she told the audience and viewers. "No questions are off the table and we agreed to no conditions. We're here to give voters the answers they deserve."

At the end of the forum, Collins asked Trump whether he would accept the results of the 2024 presidential election.

"If I think it's an honest election, I would be honored to," Trump said.

"Okay, so not committing to accepting the 2024 election results, or acknowledging what happened in 2020," Collins said, to which someone in the crowd booed.

As the event concluded, Trump and Collins shook hands. "Thank you very much, Kaitlan," the former president said. "Good job."

As CNN went to post-forum analysis, anchor Jake Tapper was up first. "It was an interesting night," he said. "Mr. Trump's first lie was told just seconds into the night," he said, "and the falsehoods kept coming, fast and furious."

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