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On heels of damning sex abuse verdict, Trump faces GOP voters on live CNN town hall

WASHINGTON — Unchastened and unrepentant, Donald Trump picked up Wednesday where he left off two years ago, rejecting the 2020 election results and his role in the Jan. 6 riots, denouncing Democrats as "stupid fools" and vowing to make the U.S.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event Thursday, April 27, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. Love him or hate him, Trump is about to make more must-see TV — this time on the heels of a damning sexual abuse verdict in a New York courtroom. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Charles Krupa

WASHINGTON — Unchastened and unrepentant, Donald Trump picked up Wednesday where he left off two years ago, rejecting the 2020 election results and his role in the Jan. 6 riots, denouncing Democrats as "stupid fools" and vowing to make the U.S. a fossil-fuel superpower.

Twice impeached, recently indicted and now on the hook for a $5-million sexual abuse and defamation verdict, image rehabilitation was clearly the furthest thing from Trump's mind as he barrelled into New Hampshire for a prime-time CNN town hall. 

The former president denied knowing E. Jean Carroll, the "wackjob" whose civil suit ended Tuesday with a finding that Trump sexually assaulted the former magazine writer in 1996, then later defamed her in his public efforts to deny the allegations. 

He rejected any suggestion that he helped to foment the deadly Capitol Hill riots in 2021, when supporters ran rampant through Congress, fuelled by his still-rigid insistence that he was the rightful winner of the presidential election. 

And throughout, Trump — the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2024 — played to a friendly crowd, basking in frequent applause breaks and raucous laughter from the crowd, particularly when he shouted down host Kaitlan Collins, describing her at one point as a "nasty woman."

"They were there with love in their heart — it was a beautiful day," he said of the riots, blaming D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a lack of security at the Capitol. 

As president, he said, he would "most likely" pardon a "large portion" of the nearly 500 people — "great people" — convicted to date for their actions on that day, although he stopped short when asked if that would include members of the extremist Proud Boys. 

And when asked if he'd respect the results of the next election, he said he would — "If I think it's an honest election."

He added: "If I don't win, this country's going to be in big trouble."

When a member of the audience, which largely comprised Republican and undeclared voters, asked about his plan to tackle inflation, he replied, simply: "Drill, baby, drill."  

"We were energy independent, soon to be energy dominant; we were going to be bigger than Russia and Saudi Arabia put together times two ... and these stupid fools ended it," Trump said of the Biden administration. 

He suggested at one point that Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, currently locked in an impasse over the debt ceiling, should just let the country go off a fiscal cliff and into default. 

"You might as well do it now, because you'll do it later," he said. "Our country is dying. Our country is being destroyed by stupid people, by very stupid people."

When gun rights came up, he said he would order more rigid security at U.S. schools, blaming mental health issues for the ongoing rash of mass shootings, and suggested more guns, not fewer, would make the country more safe. 

He refused to be pinned down on whether he would sign a federal ban on abortion, although he repeatedly took credit for the repeal of the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, which was overturned last year after nearly 50 years of federal abortion rights. 

And he sounded noncommittal on maintaining military aid to Ukraine, suggesting the rest of the world is taking advantage of the U.S., despite his "very good relationship" with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy.

"If I were president, I will have that war settled in one day — 24 hours," he said to raucous applause. "I'll meet with Putin, I'll meet with Zelenskyy. They both have weaknesses and they both have strengths, and in 24 hours, that war will be over."

In a striking illustration of the current state of the Republican party, meanwhile, Trump wasn't the only prominent party member with a propensity for lying who faced tough questions Wednesday about his mounting legal troubles. 

New York Rep. George Santos, the freshman member of Congress who brazenly and repeatedly fictionalized parts of his personal and professional background, was indicted on 13 criminal charges in a Long Island courtroom. 

Santos faces seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, as well as one count of theft of public funds. He's also charged with lying to the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Taken together, the allegations in the indictment charge Santos with relying on repeated dishonesty and deception to ascend to the halls of Congress and enrich himself," said U.S. district attorney Breon Peace.

"He used political contributions to line his pockets, unlawfully applied for unemployment benefits that should have gone to New Yorkers who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic and lied to the House of Representatives."

After entering a plea of not guilty, he walked defiantly out of the courthouse, a crush of reporters and cameras trailing his every move, and borrowed a tactic straight from the former president's self-defence strategy.

"The reality is, it's a witch hunt," Santos said, promptly citing the nebulous influence-peddling allegations against Hunter Biden, the current president's son, that have become a popular Republican talking point.

He waved off pointed questions about the allegations against him, and said not only will he not resign his seat in Congress, but he plans to flourish on Capitol Hill and eventually seek re-election. 

"I'm going to fight my battle, I'm going to deliver, I'm going to fight the witch hunt, I'm going to clear my name and I look forward to doing that," Santos said. 

Santos, who has been in Congress just four months, has famously amassed an impressive track record of fictional self-aggrandizement. 

He has claimed, falsely, that his mother died in the 9/11 attacks and that his grandmother died in the Holocaust. His claims of being a college volleyball star, a former Goldman Sachs employee and Jewish have all been debunked.

One claim the openly gay Republican initially denied and eventually appeared to relent on was that he regularly performed as a drag queen in Rio de Janeiro during the 2000s. 

On Wednesday, when asked why he intends to persist with a career in politics, he appeared to suggest that political Washington is the perfect place for someone with a track record like his.

"The way I look at it, I'll be a chairman of a committee in a couple of years, if you look at the standards in Congress," Santos said. "Just look at the Senate." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2023. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press