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Donald Trump enjoys a relaxed Fox News town hall while top Republican rivals have fiery debate

In World
January 11, 2024

NEW YORK (AP) — As Donald Trump‘s two main Republican rivals slugged it out Wednesday on a Iowa debate stage, the former president appeared across town on a Fox News Channel town hall in a counterprogramming move where few discouraging words were heard.

Trump walked onstage to cheers and chants of “USA,” stayed at the end to sign autographs and heard one audience member blurt out “love you” after he took her question.

He was barely challenged by questioners who left several challenging topics on the table — like Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, his support for Capitol insurrectionists and legal arguments this week in which his lawyers claimed he had immunity from any potential crimes he might have conducted while in office.

When asked about his previous statements that a second term as president would be about retribution for his enemies, Trump said he wouldn’t have time for it.

“The ultimate retribution,” he said, “is success.”

It was Trump’s first live appearance on Fox News since 2022, and how the network handled it was closely watched. It came less than a year after Fox agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787 million to settle a lawsuit related to lies told in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Fox instituted a soft ban against Trump in the opening days of the Biden administration, and the former president has complained about some of its personalities being insufficiently loyal to him.

His standing atop 2024 presidential polls, however, put him in a position of strength. While Fox held Iowa town halls with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley outside of prime-time hours in the past week, Trump’s town hall aired in direct competition with the CNN debate between his two rivals.

Moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum had their own challenge: not to allow the town hall to go off the rails, as a similar town hall televised by CNN last May did, while also not alienating a network audience filled with Trump supporters.

They did it by not interrupting Trump with fact-checks. After Trump criticized how DeSantis responded to COVID as governor of Florida, MacCallum said, “DeSantis would argue with your characterization.” During an abortion discussion, when Trump suggested “radical” Democrats supported killing babies after they were born, it was not challenged.

The event stood in contrast to sharp questioning by CNN’s debate moderators, who put both candidates on the defense at points and revealed some policy differences between Haley and DeSantis.

Baier asked Trump whether he could say that political violence is never acceptable. The former president said, “Of course, that’s right,” but then said that President Joe Biden “is bedlam.”

His court fights came up when MacCallum asked how he’d respond to a DeSantis statement about a potential Trump general election campaign being essentially left up to a jury in a Washington, D.C., courtroom.

“It’s a witch hunt,” Trump said.

He was interrupted several times by applause and even laughter — like when he said about former rival Chris Christie, who was caught on a hot mic Wednesday saying that Haley was going to get “smoked” in the voting, that it was “one of the few things he’s been right about.”

The majority of questioners said they were Trump supporters, including one expected caucusgoer who returned to the former president after attending one of the other candidate town halls, saying she had been undecided.

One man, who said he was a Trump supporter, said some of his friends had turned away from the former president because they feared “four years of chaos due to your haters.”

Trump — and the audience — backed that characterization.

“Most of the chaos was caused by Democrats constantly going after me,” he said, to the audience’s applause.

For Trump, the appearance capped off a pre-primary season where he refused to appear at any debates featuring his rivals.

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