Tonight, for about 90 minutes, CNN may be the most-watched news channel in America—a rare and probably fleeting distinction it has not enjoyed since January 2021, when the U.S. Capitol was under attack, Jeff Zucker was dictating the coverage, and David Zaslav had yet to initiate the Discovery-WarnerMedia tie-up that would catalyze the network’s pivot to a more centrist, John Malone-approved, G.O.P.-friendly posture. CNN, which has endured some of the worst ratings in its history under Zaz’s hand-picked C.E.O., Chris Licht, is now poised for a brief taste of the same power and influence that it enjoyed in the old days. And it will achieve that massive audience, of course, via the very same mechanism that fueled the Zucker years: Donald Trump.
The stakes for the CNN Trump Town Hall, tonight at 8 p.m. ET, are obviously high. Trump is risking a hard-hitting interview—likely to focus on the various criminal investigations into his political activities, his liability for defaming and sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll, his embrace of voter fraud conspiracy and his role in the aforementioned January 6 attack, and his controversial views on abortion and overturning Roe v. Wade—in an effort to venture out of the MAGA media shadows and back into the mainstream. Meanwhile, CNN is risking all the predictable pitfalls of Trump’s unpredictability, as well as criticism for their decision to platform an insurrectionist and sexual predator, even if he is the frontrunner, in order to reassert the network’s influence, validate its nonpartisan bona fides, and pick up some much-needed ratings.
Befitting these stakes, the media coverage leading up to tonight has been reminiscent of the pregame fanfare before a presidential debate, or even a heavyweight boxing match. Trump has been holding informal practice sessions with aides at Mar-a-Lago, discussing the various questions he might be asked. The event’s moderator, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, is bunkered in a hotel near the debate site in Manchester, New Hampshire, working with Licht and veteran CNN political producers Mark Preston and David Chalian to predict the unpredictable.