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Reporters watch a CNN town hall with former U.S. President and 2024 Presidential hopeful Donald Trump at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on May 10.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump hung tight to his claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential vote he lost, declaring it a “rigged election” in a CNN town hall in which he pledged to pardon many of the rioters at the Jan. 6 insurrection and played his treatment of women for audience laughs.

Mr. Trump, who is leading in the race to become the Republican candidate in the 2024 election, seized the international stage given him by the news network to reprise the chaotic approach to politics that was the hallmark of his presidency, and urge others to do the same.

With the U.S. nearing a debt ceiling, Mr. Trump urged Republican lawmakers to drive the U.S. toward a default – a move that would have vast and destabilizing consequences – if they do not secure a pledge for deep spending cuts.

“We might as well do it now,” he said. “Because we have to save this country. Our country is dying. Our country is being destroyed by stupid people.”

It was a theme he repeated, lashing out at “nonsense” spending by the federal government, the “fools” in President Joe Biden’s administration, the “crazy” politicians who voted for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, twice, and the “whack job” who accused him of rape.

He offered few new commitments, saying his solution to inflation is “drill baby drill,” that armed teachers and security-reinforced schools are the best way to respond to gun violence, and that separating the children of migrants from their parents is the right approach. “When you have that policy, people don’t come,” he said.

The former president reiterated his earlier praise for the intelligence of Vladimir Putin, but allowed that the Russian leader “made a tremendous mistake” invading Ukraine. Mr. Trump has said he would demand Europe pay more for Ukraine’s defence. He has claimed that, if re-elected president, he could end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours. On Wednesday, he refused to say whether Mr. Putin is a war criminal, or which side should win the war.

“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing. I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people,” he said.

CNN’s decision to invite Mr. Trump to the town hall defied critics. The network said his voice matters, because he is a Republican front-runner. It hosted the town hall at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire, which is among the first states to cast ballots in primary voting. Moderator Kaitlan Collins pressed Mr. Trump to acknowledge wrongdoing in his handling of classified files, to express regret about his role in the Jan. 6 riot and to accept the results of the 2020 vote.

“The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” she said. “You can’t keep saying that all night long.”

Mr. Trump called her “a nasty person.” He said he will respect the outcome of the 2024 presidential vote only “if it’s an honest election.”

Rather than admit any fault, he used the television spotlight to describe his own version of events – often at odds with factual records.

Earlier this week, a federal jury awarded advice columnist E. Jean Carroll US$5-million in damages after finding that Mr. Trump had sexually abused her in the 1990s and then defamed her by calling her claims a “con job” on social media.

Reminded that a jury found him liable for sexually abusing Ms. Carroll, Mr. Trump responded: “They said she wasn’t raped.”

How would he respond to voters who say a person who has committed sexual abuse and defamation should not be trusted with the presidency?

“There aren’t too many” of those critics, Mr. Trump responded, “because my poll numbers just came out. They went up.”

He refused to say whether he would support a federal abortion ban. He instead suggested that those opposed to to abortion, who have enacted sweeping bans in some states and openly discussed limiting women’s ability to travel to terminate a pregnancy, were in fact moderates. He claimed that pro-abortion advocates would “rip the baby out of the womb at the end of the ninth month. ”It’s not the pro-life people that are radical,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s invitation to the town hall underscored his singular place in American politics: a former president campaigning for a return to the White House who continues to enjoy the affections of a large segment of the country’s electorate – even as courts and Congress have brought to light new evidence of his wrongdoing.

In addition to the jury finding of defamation and sexual abuse, Mr. Trump became the first former president to be formally indicted in April. Last year, meanwhile, a congressional committee shone a spotlight on his intimate involvement with the Jan. 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill.

Yet Mr. Trump remains the favourite to become the Republican presidential candidate in the 2024 election, with many polls showing greater than 50-per-cent support among party members.

CNN has sought to reposition itself as a non-partisan news source, but its invitation to Mr. Trump has made it the subject of withering criticism. Liberal commentator Keith Olbermann called the town hall a “deal with the devil.”

In an article for Rolling Stone, Michael Fanone, a CNN contributor, lashed out at the network for offering a platform to Mr. Trump. “Having him answer questions like a normal candidate, who didn’t get people killed in the process of trying to end the democracy he’s attempting to once again run, normalizes what Trump did,” wrote Mr. Fanone, who retired as a Washington police officer after he was beaten during the Jan. 6 riot.

The former president has luxuriated in the attention he is once again commanding as a potent force in American politics.

“They must treat MAGA, the greatest political movement in our Country’s history, with respect,” he wrote on the social-media platform Truth Social.

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