In a rare excursion outside the friendly media bubble of Fox News on Tuesday night, Donald Trump took questions directly from uncommitted American voters at a televised “town hall” type event, in an experiment his campaign might not be in a hurry to repeat.
Under sometimes aggressive questioning from ordinary members of the voting public about healthcare, immigration and the coronavirus, Trump at times twisted in the spotlight, narrowing his eyes at a question about the “race problem in America” and trying to interrupt another voter’s question about health insurance.
But the voter shut the president down. “Please stop and let me finish my question, sir,” said the questioner, Ellesia Blaque, a professor from Philadelphia who explained that as a Black woman with a pre-existing health condition, “I’m minimized and not taken seriously.”
Trump looked away sourly, but did not try to interrupt again.
Political analysts could not look away in the aftermath of what some regarded as a train-wreck performance for Trump, while Trump himself claimed the next day on Twitter that he had won “great reviews”.
“Would love to know who in the White House thought that Trump doing this town hall was a good idea,” tweeted the columnist Karen Tumulty.
The Washington Post fact-checker awarded Trump’s performance “four Pinocchios, over and over again”.
Perhaps worse for Trump than the fact-checkers, however, were his multiple visible descents into confusion on stage, such as when he described how “herd mentality” could defeat the coronavirus – when he seemed to mean “herd immunity”.
“It would go away without the vaccine, George,” Trump told host George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, about Covid-19. “Sure, over a period of time. You’ll develop like a herd mentality, it’s gonna be … it’s gonna be herd-developed, and that’s gonna happen. It will all happen.”
The moment was made into an instant attack ad by the Lincoln Project, a consortium of anti-Trump Republicans, who commented: “This is not a man you want to trust with the management of a national vaccine distribution.”
The coronavirus tangle was not Trump’s only moment of seeming disorientation on stage at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where voters wearing masks were seated far apart.
In response to one crying voter who told the story of how her mother, an immigrant, had died from cancer, Trump mistook the cause of death, referring repeatedly to the mother’s death from “Covid”.
Challenged on a recently released audio tape in which he can be heard to tell Watergate journalist Bob Woodward of the coronavirus “I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down”, Trump – who has been telling Americans for six months that the virus is about to disappear – said that he had in fact “up-played” the virus.
“Actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action,” Trump said.
The remarks came in response to an uncommitted voter at the event, who asked Trump why he would “downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities”. The president said he did not minimize the threat of the virus: “My action was very strong. I’m not looking to be dishonest. I don’t want people to panic.”
He went on to state flatly that he had no regrets about his management of the pandemic, despite a confirmed US death toll that is nearing 200,000 with no sign of containment of the virus soon.
“I think we could’ve had 2 million deaths if we didn’t close out the country,” Trump said, referring to his policy of restricting travel from China, which happened after the virus was spread internationally and had no effect on cases coming from Europe and elsewhere. “No, I think we did a great job.”
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Bob Woodward said of Trump: “I don’t know if he’s got it straight in his head, to be honest, what is real and what is unreal.”
Challenged again at the town hall on why he so rarely wears a face mask, Trump said, “I do wear them when I have to” – but he went on to assert that “a lot of people think the masks are not good”.
Asked by an incredulous Stephanopoulos whom he was talking about, Trump cryptically replied, “waiters” – a response that drew no follow-up from the host.
The forum was highly unusual for the president, who is more accustomed to holding fawning conversations with Fox News anchors.
In other moments, Trump told lies about his efforts to eviscerate Barack Obama’s healthcare law or to smear anti-racism protesters.
“You have yet to address and acknowledge that there’s been a race problem in America,” one voter told Trump.
“Well, I hope there’s not a race problem,” Trump said, after years of national anguish over the killing of African Americans by white police officers, the empowerment of white supremacists, and the murder of anti-racism activists.
“I can tell you there’s none with me. Because I have great respect for all races, everybody.”
But it was a Trump lie about his record on healthcare that moved the largely impassive Stephanopoulos to push back hardest.
As he has many times, Trump repeated the lie that Democrats want to remove insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions – a cornerstone of Obama’s healthcare law – and repeated a tease about a healthcare bill that always is just weeks away.
“We’re going to be doing a healthcare plan very strongly, and protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Trump said. “And I will tell you this, they will not do that.”
“I have to interrupt you there,” Stephanopoulos said. “I interviewed you in June of last year, you said the healthcare plan would come in two weeks. You told [Fox News’] Chris Wallace this summer it would come in three weeks.”
“I have it already,” Trump said. “I have it already.”
Participants in the forum later told CNN weren’t buying it.
“He didn’t answer anything,” one said. “He was lying through his teeth.”