NEW YORK – Donald Trump's town hall forum on CNN on Wednesday is the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign — and a gigantic test for the chosen moderator, Kaitlan Collins.
Both sides of the political divide expressed suspicion when the CNN forum at New Hampshire's St. Anselm College was announced last week. Some Democrats question whether the former president should be given the airtime, while Republicans wonder if a network Trump has long disparaged can be fair.
Once it begins, Collins must give audience members the chance to ask questions while determining when to step in with her own. She'll weigh how to correct misinformation in a potentially hostile environment: Invited town hall participants are those who expect to vote in a Republican primary.
“It's a balance beam and it can be walked,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief now at George Washington University. “We're going to see if Kaitlan is worthy of the Olympics.”
CNN would not make Collins available to talk before the event, scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday.
It speaks to Collins' stature that she was given the assignment at a network with no shortage of experienced political journalists — Dana Bash, Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, Chris Wallace. She worked at The Daily Caller, the conservative website launched by Tucker Carlson, before turning occasional guest appearances on CNN into a full-time job in 2017.
She covered the Trump White House and became CNN's chief White House correspondent in 2021. She moved to New York late last year for a co-hosting role on “CNN This Morning.” For the 31-year-old Collins, now in the mix for a role on CNN's prime-time lineup, Wednesday's event may also be an important audition.
“She has had a pretty meteoric rise at a young age because of her talent,” said Maggie Haberman, New York Times correspondent and author of the Trump biography “Confidence Man.” “She was a formidable White House correspondent, always calm under pressure, but she is also incredibly fair and facts-focused.”
Collins had her run-ins with the Trump White House. She was barred from a Rose Garden event in 2018 when the Trump team got upset with her shouted questions in the Oval Office earlier in the day.
She has fact-checked on the fly as a morning anchor. “That's not true, Senator,” she said to Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida recently when he made a claim about President Joe Biden and Medicare spending on “CNN This Morning.”
Alyssa Farah Griffin, once on Trump's communications team and now a panelist on “The View,” tweeted after the forum was announced that Collins “is one of the toughest interviews out there. Anyone thinking that Trump will get away with lying without being called out needs to watch her past interviews. Honestly surprised he agreed.”
Remarkably, it's Trump's first appearance for a CNN interview since before he was elected president in 2016. Since announcing his 2024 candidacy, he's generally confined himself to television interviews with outlets that appeal to conservatives.
During his presidency, Trump continually attacked CNN as “fake news.” CNN's reputation among Republicans sunk, and although the network's new management has sought to inhabit more of a middle ground politically, it's an uphill battle among his supporters.
“It's obvious to everyone with half a brain that Trump won't get a fair shake from CNN,” wrote columnist Paula Bonyard for the conservative PJ Media. “Why does he keep prostrating himself before these dishonest left-wing media hacks?”
A Trump adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said CNN executives made a compelling pitch to the former president. The adviser also noted that Trump found success in 2016 by stepping outside Republicans' traditional comfort zone.
Meanwhile, many Trump opponents believe a man who has continued to spread lies about fraud during his 2020 election loss to Biden doesn't deserve the prime-time exposure.
There's also deep-seated suspicion dating to CNN's frequent coverage of Trump's rallies before the 2016 election, which gave a ratings boost to the network and outsize airtime to the first-time candidate.
“I find it very hard to defend the choice to give him a live platform, no matter how it is dressed up,” MSNBC's Chris Hayes said on his show, which will directly compete with Trump on Wednesday.
CNN has said the forum is part of the network's long-standing tradition of hosting candidate interviews and events. Given Trump's standing in polls with Republican voters, the network said, his candidacy can't be ignored.
It's also a reflection of the new era of leadership at the network, and management's efforts to rebuild trust as a nonpartisan news brand. To that end, current CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht has made it a goal to broaden the network’s reach and ease some of the tension with Republicans, including by reportedly meeting with lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill.
Collins was chosen as moderator in part because she's a rising star and in part because of her direct experience covering Trump. She'll be onstage on Wednesday with a team of producers and fact-checkers giving her advice through an earpiece.
Sesno said that CNN should make clear in its advance promotion that it's a no-holds-barred event where the former president can be asked any question. The ad that the network has been running has been a straightforward preview.
“I simply cannot imagine that CNN or New Hampshire Republicans are going to give him a free pass,” Sesno said. “But if they do, shame on them.”
Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price in New York contributed to this report.