President Donald Trump rarely interacts for extended periods with everyday Americans who haven’t been pre-screened by the White House or campaign. He’s never been fond of retail politics, like the random visit to a coffee shop or diner. The majority of his interactions with supporters comes from rallies, and while he does frequently respond to shouted questions from journalists, he carefully controls those interactions — deciding who to call on and when to end the conversation.
Just 48 days from the election, and under two weeks from the first presidential debate, the risks of that approach are becoming clearer.
A televised town hall in Philadelphia exposed holes in the president’s explanation of basic facts about the coronavirus, health insurance and stock ownership in America. He fielded pointed questions from undecided voters in the swing state of Pennsylvania covering immigration reform, systemic racism, his attitudes toward the military and views on police officers’ treatment and use of unnecessary force. As top Trump aides watched from a control room, with ABC News determining the ground rules and participants, Trump dodged and blustered his way around pointed questions and fact-checks — skipping moment after moment that most politicians would have seized as slam-dunk opportunities to connect with voters’ everyday concerns.
To Trump critics, the event highlighted his empathy gap in an election year wracked by health and economic crises weighing down American families. Trump is already hamstrung by not being able to host as many mega-rallies given the risks of a pandemic, so now he and his aides have turned to smaller, tamer events like Tuesday night’s town hall and roundtables with supporters, Latinos or small business owners. By contrast, his Democratic rival and former vice president Joe Biden has eschewed large-scale events and instead met people one-on-one at more traditional campaign stops to hear their stories.
Trump “has almost no way to relate for the challenges everyday people face. For his entire life, he has lived in a bubble of wealth or Manhattan,” Brendan Buck, former counselor to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, said about the president’s town hall performance. “He has surrounded himself in this echo chamber where it is rare for him to be confronted in this way.”
Unlike attacking the news media or uttering “fake news” when he does not like the outcome, “you can’t attack a regular voter for his views,” Buck added.
Trump tried to cast the town hall as a victory on Twitter and during a press conference on Wednesday, even as the event was panned by Republicans and Democrats alike. “Thank you for the great reviews of the ABC News show last night,” he tweeted Wednesday morning.
To many Trump aides, the event went fine — avoiding any major disasters for his campaign. Trump showed up and faced tough questions. None of his answers became viral sensations on the internet, and while he stumbled over answers on Covid-19 or herd immunity, referring to it as “herd mentality,” aides and advisers argued it allowed him to draw a contrast with Biden — who has made far fewer public appearances in part due to public health guidelines around the pandemic.
“We’re wondering when Joe Biden will take tough questions from Republican voters in a town hall moderated by George Bush’s press secretary,” one campaign official joked about the moderator, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who once served as White House communications director under President Bill Clinton.
Other Trump aides and allies cast the event as rigged, with ABC picking voters whose sharp questions implied they were anything but “undecided.” Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham called the ABC town hall a “total set up” on Twitter even as she called Trump “unflappable,” and her show framed the event as an “ambush” of Trump.
“Will ABC do to the same to Joe?” she asked.
“Last night the American people got to hear directly from their president for nearly an hour on what he’s doing to defeat the virus, protect their jobs, and get our economy back to being the strongest in history,” White House communications director Alyssa Farah said in a statement. “While many career politicians avoid tough, lengthy interviews, President Trump doesn’t shy away from them and is the most accessible politician in history.”
The event was a different tone than Trump’s friendlier appearances on Fox News’ morning or evening programs during which hosts largely go along with Trump’s rhetoric, theories or boasting.
At Tuesday’s town hall, Trump told one voter a vaccine would likely ready in three to four weeks while health experts have warned a vaccine is not likely to be available until 2021. He blamed Biden for failing to institute a national mandate on mask-wearing – when Biden does not hold any elected office — and he argued wearing masks to fight Covid-19 is not always good, undermining his government’s own health guidelines.
When asked by a voter why he downplayed the coronavirus, dismissing it publicly from January into March, the president said he had not.
“Well, I didn’t downplay it,” he said. “I actually — in many ways I up-played it in terms of action. My action was very strong.”
Not everyone was buying it.
“I found it to be an amazing spectacle of Donald Trump’s reality distortion field on full power — his refusal to answer the substance of serious questions, his complete bonkers grasp of reality and facts and his comfort in offering non-sensical explanations for very serious topics,” said Timothy O’Brien, author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald” and a former senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.
Biden also seized on Trump’s comments on Covid-19, saying the president’s town hall revealed “in no uncertain terms a lack of seriousness with which he continues to take this pandemic,” Biden said.
“By his own admission, he continued to lie about Covid-19,” Biden added during a press appearance on Wednesday afternoon.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said the president showed empathy at several points in the town hall but declined to point to specific moments. “It showed a president who is in charge and on top of a critical issue facing the entire country, and I think people watching should come away from it knowing that the president of the United States has been engaged and out front leading” on Covid,” Murtaugh added.
Few operatives, or even Trump aides believe a single town hall will sway the minds of any individual voters. But it could cement people’s existing impressions of a candidate, Buck said — whether that means viewing the president as a strong leader as his base does, or viewing him as a self-centered one unable to meet the challenges of the pandemic.
“I don’t think this particular event will make or break anything, but it does offer a window into what debates look like,” Buck said, noting the ABC moderator who fact-checked Trump in real time. “This is a president who is uniquely in a bubble, and that will make it interesting to see if he is comfortable with someone challenging him for an hour and half.”