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Trump returns to CNN, testing CEO Chris Licht’s rules

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U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a commercial break during a live one-hour NBC News town hall forum with a group of Florida voters in Miami, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2020.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

When Chris Licht took over as CNN’s chief executive last year, he made a promise to viewers.

“The analogy I love to use is some people like rain, some people don’t like rain. We should give space to that. But we will not have someone who comes on and says it’s not raining,” Licht said in an October interview with CNBC.

Licht was talking about CNN guests and panelists pushing disinformation, such as election fraud lies, when he made the comment.

On Wednesday, CNN will welcome former President Donald Trump to participate in a town hall. This seems to be a case of Licht bending his own rules. Clearly, CNN has different standards for Trump than it does spokespeople for Trump that cycle through cable news networks as daily guests.

Trump has repeatedly made false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Hundreds of his supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to prevent Congress from confirming Joe Biden’s victory after Trump told them in a speech “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

CNN vowed to hold Trump accountable during the town hall.

“President Trump is the Republican frontrunner, and our job despite his unique circumstances is to do what we do best,” a CNN spokesperson said. “Ask tough questions, follow up, and hold him accountable to give voters the information they need to sort through their choices.”

Inviting Trump to CNN

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and board member John Malone have been open about their beliefs that CNN should be less of an “advocacy network” and more of a down-the-middle news network than it was when Jeff Zucker was in charge during Trump’s years as president.

“He should be,” Zaslav said Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” when he was asked about having Trump on for the town hall. “He’s the Republican frontrunner. He has to be on.”

CNN is opting for a live town hall rather than a taped interview with Trump that could then be fact checked before airing. That would be a safer way to proceed, but the live town hall is likely to bring higher ratings to CNN, which has been hemorrhaging viewers amid programming changes.

Trump heavily skewed his media appearances toward Republican-leaning Fox News during his presidency. He did take part in an NBC Town Hall, hosted by Savannah Guthrie, in Oct. 2020.

CNN is taking notes from that event as it prepares for Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. Guthrie consistently challenged Trump on his proclivity to push false information, telling him at one point, “You’re the president, you’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle.”

The CNN Town Hall will be hosted by Kaitlan Collins, who co-anchors CNN’s new morning show. Collins served as CNN’s chief White House correspondent during the Trump administration. 

“We have divided government. We need to hear both voices,” Zaslav said on CNBC Friday. “Republicans are on air on CNN, and Democrats are on air on CNN. All voices should be heard on CNN.”

WATCH: CNBC’s full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav

Watch CNBC's full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav

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