- By Anthony Zwercher
- North American Correspondent
Since Donald Trump left office in January 2021, he has been cocooned by the friendly right-wing media and his legions of loyal supporters.
But the former president, who will run again in 2024, ventured out of that bubble on Wednesday in a 90 Minutes interview on CNN.
His appearances on the news channel, which he has repeatedly called fake news, were chaotic at times and familiar to anyone who followed him as he made his way to the White House in 2016.
It also came just one day after a New York jury was found responsible for sexually assaulting writer E. Jean Carroll in a department store in the city nearly 30 years ago.
Here are six takeaways from the evening.
1) A man who can’t let 2020 pass by
The event was moderated by CNN host Caitlan Collins and included a live audience of Republicans and a few independents.
They gave him a warm welcome as soon as he entered.
The former president’s first question to Collins was an open-ended question as to why he should be reinstated in the White House. Instead of responding by criticizing Democratic President Joe Biden or outlining his platform, he quickly launched an attack on the 2020 election.
He reiterated his refutation of allegations of ballot box stuffing and voter fraud, calling it a “rigged election”. When Mrs. Collins responded, he said she was smart enough to know better and accused her of having an agenda.
The extended exchange showed once again that Trump’s main stimulus for the 2024 presidential election is still recounting his defeat in 2020. It’s the only thing he can’t give up.
While this may be music to the ears of his loyal base, general election voters — and even some Republican primary voters — can hope it moves forward.
2) The irony in the case of E. Jean Carroll
Trump was asked directly about Tuesday’s ruling in the civil case of E. Jean Carroll, when he was ordered to pay around $5m (£4m) in damages for sexual assault and defamation.
He has repeatedly denied having any contact with the writer, although a photo of them together has surfaced. He said, “I don’t know her.” I have never met her. I had no idea who you were. »
The New Hampshire crowd then derided Carroll’s claim as “fake news”.
As Ms Collins pressed the former president for answers on various topics throughout the event – at one point it annoyed him so much he called her a “very bad person” – the crowd was clearly in their corner.
It was a living, breathing reflection on the control Trump still wields over the Republican Party — and the hurdles his opponents will face trying to wrest the 2024 nomination from him.
“I like you guys,” the former president told the audience at the end of the forum. The feeling was mutual.
3) Maximum default warning
Republicans and Democrats in Washington are locked in tense negotiations over raising the legal debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on the national debt.
However, Trump said late Wednesday that overcoming the debt slope for the first time in US history may be a necessary step if Republicans don’t get the sweeping spending cuts they want.
He said, “If they don’t give you big discounts, you’ll have to default.”
The view reflects those of some conservative Republicans in Congress who believe the United States is already on a path that will end in default and disaster if no fiscal changes are made.
He said, “You will eventually default anyway, but it will be more complicated.”
This message will resonate with some Republicans and will certainly strengthen the backbone of the ultra-Republicans. The odds of a real debt default next month – which economists say would have dire consequences for the US and the world – may have just increased.
4) Not to choose sides in Ukraine
In recent months, Trump has said that Russia would never have invaded Ukraine if he were president, and if he returned to power he would negotiate a settlement in Ukraine within 24 hours.
Repeat these lines on Wednesday. However, hastily, the ex-president has repeatedly refused to say who he would like to win in the Ukrainian conflict.
“I don’t think about winning or losing, I think about fixing it,” he said. “I want everyone to stop dying.”
He added that he believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin made a mistake by invading Ukraine, but when asked he did not describe him as a war criminal.
Polls show that Republicans are increasingly concerned about US support for the war effort in Ukraine. The mayor’s crowd chanted loudly and repeatedly what Trump had to say about Ukraine.
While some Republican officials and the Biden administration may promise continued support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it is increasingly clear that a second Trump presidency will mark a decisive shift in American politics.
5) Muddy water on the abortion
For conservative evangelical voters, one of Mr. Trump’s most notable accomplishments as president was the appointment of the Supreme Court justices who ultimately struck down abortion protections in Roe v. valley.
On Wednesday night, Trump took credit for that — but repeatedly dodged when asked what he wanted to happen next on the abortion issue.
Would he support a federal ban? Does he think abortion should be restricted after six weeks of pregnancy, as some Republican states have done? Or more? at least?
As much as Ms. Collins insisted, Mr. Trump wasn’t giving a firm answer, simply saying as president he would look into it and do “what’s right for everyone.”
When it comes to abortion, there is no answer that makes everyone happy in America.
After Republicans underperformed in last year’s midterm congressional elections, Trump said he believes the issue and hardline conservative positions on it are costing the party’s votes.
On Wednesday evening, he seemed determined to keep his answers as vague as possible.
6) Forgive the Capitol riots
At a recent campaign rally in Texas, Trump released a video showing prisoners awaiting trial in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol singing the national anthem. It is intercut with footage of the attack and Mr. Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
On Wednesday evening, the former president sympathized more with those who participated in the bombing.
He pledged to pardon “many” of those convicted of the January 6 crimes. And again, he honored Ashley Babbitt, who was killed while trying to break into a room near the bedroom of the house. He called the Capitol Hill security guard who shot him a “thug”.
More broadly, he has defended his actions that day, publishing in several newspapers statements and tweets he says show he urged protesters to be peaceful.
As long as Mr. Trump seeks public office, questions about the Capitol riot — and his role in it — will follow him.
Many Republicans, including those on Capitol Hill that day, consider it a dark moment in American history. To them, Mr. Trump’s attempts at a rebrand may seem painful.
You can hear more of Anthony’s analysis on Americast, the BBC’s American Culture and Politics Podcast, on BBC Sounds, or wherever you get your podcast.