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Pure Trump re-injected into the main vein of American politics at CNN town hall

Emboldened by polls, Trump took to the airwaves to begin selling his 2024 plans to a broader audience.

Americans saw a pure version of Donald Trump on Wednesday — fortunately or unfortunately.

For many viewers, a 70-minute town-hall style interview on CNN provided the first long look at the former president and front-runner for the Republican nomination since he left the Oval Office.

For Trump, it was something of a re-injection into the main vein of American politics. His responses to questions from moderator Kaitlan Collins and New Hampshire residents reflected messages road-tested in front of friendly audiences at campaign rallies, through the Truth Social media platform and in interviews with sympathetic outlets.

There were lies. He said, for example, that he finished building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and he reiterated his false claim that the 2020 election was "rigged."

There were startling promises, such as how he is "inclined to pardon many" of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

And there was familiar defiance: He defended his request for Georgia officials to overturn the 2020 election result in their state.

"Yeah, I called questioning the election," Trump said of a matter that is the subject of a criminal case in Fulton County. “I said, 'You owe me votes because the election was rigged.'"

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For better or worse, this is the edition of Trump that has taken a dominant lead in the GOP presidential primary campaign while being indicted over allegedly covering up hush money payments to a porn star, found liable for sexual abuse and defamation of writer E. Jean Carroll and investigated for the Jan. 6 insurrection and taking classified documents from the White House.

Trump, emboldened by surging poll numbers, mocked his leading Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, questioning whether DeSantis should protect his future ambitions by avoiding a showdown now. Despite the Trump team's ongoing efforts to dissuade DeSantis from getting in, he is expected to launch his bid soon.

Trump advisers and allies crowed afterward that their man had performed well.

"Full-spectrum domination," Steve Bannon, the CEO of Trump's 2016 campaign, said in a text message.

A senior Trump campaign official said angry reactions from Trump's political adversaries were a sign of success.

"When the left's melting, we know it was a good day," the adviser said.

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But at a town hall held in New Hampshire, where independent voters are a key constituency, Trump declined to choose sides in Russia's war in Ukraine, dodged questions about which abortion restrictions he would support at the federal level and described Collins as "a nasty person" in one testy exchange.

That left him open to criticism from both his right and left flanks.

"After 76 years, Trump still doesn't know where he stands on important conservative issues like supporting life and the 2nd amendment," Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, said in a statement.

Trump "didn't hurt himself with his core base," said a Republican strategist who watched the town hall. "But he's had them."

Trump's bravado, including insulting Carroll and Collins, was "awful if the goal is to get back [independent] women," the strategist said.

Advisers to President Joe Biden seized on Trump's election-denial rhetoric, his formulation that Republicans should let the nation default if Biden won't agree to spending cuts in exchange for a debt-limit increase and his approval of the Supreme Court's overturning abortion protections. They also took careful note when he declined to promise that he would accept the outcome of the 2024 election.

"Weeks worth of damning content in one hour," a Biden adviser said. "It was quite efficient."

While he danced around some hot-button issues, Trump offered windows into his thinking on most of them. He stopped short of saying he would re-implement the family-separation policy he employed to deter undocumented immigration during his presidency. But he hinted that he might bring it back.

"We have to save our country," he said. “When you say to a family that if you come we are going to break you up, they don’t come.”

Trump criticized Biden for plans to end so-called Title 42 removal of immigrants as a result of the declaration that the Covid-19 pandemic has ended. As Trump did during his term in office, Biden is sending federal troops to help secure the border in anticipation of an influx of migrants when the restrictions are lifted this week.

Trump declined to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal," a term Biden has used in condemning the year-old Russian invasion of Ukraine. He promised again to end the war on his first day in office but chose not to say how or which side he would like to see victorious.

"I want everyone to stop dying," he said. "If I'm president, I will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours."

Many experts believe a hasty negotiation would benefit Putin and Russia.

For close observers of Trump on the campaign trail over the past several months, there were few, if any, surprises. His allies said Wednesday night that he looked polished.

Interacting with voters over the last six months had a "fantastic" effect on his performance Wednesday night, senior Trump adviser Jason Miller said.

"Keep in mind," Miller said in a text message, "CNN viewers haven't seen him talk about his policy views on saving America in quite a while."