Donald Trump and Fox News played it safe on Thursday with a town-hall event in Iowa that swerved past the former US president’s election lies and liability for sexual abuse.
The uncharacteristic omissions were a striking contrast to Trump’s recent town hall on rival network CNN and likely a source of relief for both his own lawyers and those of Fox News.
In April, the beleaguered network agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787m to avert a trial in the company’s lawsuit over its promotion of Trump’s debunked claims about the 2020 election.
The case had already embarrassed Fox News over several months and raised the possibility that its founder, Rupert Murdoch, and stars such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity would have to testify publicly. Fox News still faces a defamation lawsuit from another voting technology company, Smartmatic.
But Thursday night’s town hall with Trump in the Des Moines suburb of Clive was pre-taped, giving Fox News the option of editing out egregious lies about the 2020 election in general, or Dominion and Smartmatic in particular, before it was broadcast.
The choice might have been informed by CNN’s fateful decision last month to go live with a Trump town hall from New Hampshire. The ex-president repeated a fusillade of bogus election claims and insulted writer E Jean Carroll a day after being found liable for sexual abuse and defamation against her; Carroll now intends to go back to court to seek additional damages.
Fox News’s version, hosted by Hannity before a partisan pro-Trump crowd, managed to avoid references to either the stolen election conspiracy theory or the Carroll case. Instead, via soft questions and rambling answers, it took aim at Joe Biden and Republican primary election rivals such as Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor.
Hannity began: “Unlike fake news CNN, it’s not my job to sit here and debate the candidate. We are going to ask him about the issues of the day that matter to the people – the voters who will also have their questions as well.”
Despite this promise, Hannity launched the event by showing film of 80-year-old Biden suffering a fall at a US Air Force Academy graduation ceremony earlier on Thursday. Republicans and Fox News have long sought to make the president’s age an election issue.
After Trump had entered to whoops, cheers and chants of “USA! USA!”, Hannity asked him to comment on the incident. “Not so good,” said Trump, 76, wearing his usual dark suit, white shirt and long red tie, perched on a tall chair opposite a tieless Hannity. “It’s sad, it’s sad. They’re representing – we are all representing the country when you become president – and you’re sort of not allowed to do that.
“But it’s happened. It’s happened and it’s happened pretty badly. We won’t go into it, but we all know the ones and they count those acts, you know, they never forget. But that was a bad fall.”
Hannity went on to suggest that Biden is “cognitively not there”. Trump replied that he had urged Hannity not to joke about the matter, for example by referring to Biden needing a “sippy cup”. He added “This is the most dangerous time in the history of our country because of the power of the weaponry and we have somebody that doesn’t understand what’s happening.”
Later Trump also went on the offensive against his Republican primary rivals, whose names elicited boos from the crowd. He dismissed DeSantis’s claim to be a better candidate because he can theoretically serve two terms. “I heard ‘DeSanctis’ say, ‘Oh, I get eight years, he gets four.’ You don’t need four and you don’t need eight. You need six months.”
The former president mocked Chris Christie’s approval rating in his native New Jersey, branded Asa Hutchinson as “Ada” Hutchinson and suggested that DeSantis will soon no longer be his main challenger: “I really go after the one who second and I think the one who second is going down so much and so rapidly that I don’t think he’s going to be second that much longer. I think he’s going to be third or fourth. He had a very bad day today. He got very angry at the press.”
As the audience chuckled, Trump added: “At the fake news, he got angry.”
Just as in the CNN town hall, Trump stressed his role in appointing supreme court justices who helped overturn Roe v Wade, the supreme court precedent that enshrined the constitutional right to abortion, but warned against alienating voters by taking an extreme position on the issue. DeSantis recently signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida.
Trump said: “I did something that nobody thought was possible. I got rid of Roe v Wade and by doing that, it put pro-lifers in a very strong negotiating position. Now they’re negotiating different things and I happen to be of the Ronald Reagan school in terms of exemptions, where you have the life of the mother, rape and incest. For me, that’s something that works very well and for probably 80, 85%, because don’t forget, we do have to win elections.”
The issue had energised Democrats in last year’s midterm elections, he noted. “When you didn’t have the exceptions, they went after the people viciously – the ads – and those people generally speaking didn’t do very well in terms of election.”
The former president also railed against multiple criminal investigations into his conduct (“If my poll numbers went down, it would all end”), insisting that everything he did in handling classified documents was “right” and making false assertions about the quantity of documents found in Biden’s possession. He made racist comments about Washington’s Chinatown district and claimed that he could settle the war between Russia and Ukraine “in 24 hours”.
Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, said: “In what was mostly an incoherent, rambling appearance full of recycled lies on Fox News, Donald Trump told the truth at least once in his safe space – no one did more to pave the way for abortion bans across the country than him.
“Whenever Trump is given a platform, he reminds America not only how much of a failure his presidency was, but just how extreme and dangerous he is. While President Biden focuses on continuing to deliver historic results for working families and protecting Americans’ hard-won freedoms, all Trump does is remind the American people why they rejected him and his failed presidency.”
DeSantis, aiming to recover from a glitchy campaign launch, was touring New Hampshire on Thursday. In Laconia, he took a dig at former reality TV star Trump by remarking that “leadership is not about entertainment”. Former vice-president Mike Pence and former New Jersey governor Christie are expected to join the race next week.