Typically, if voters are hearing from President Trump late at night, it’s because he is either calling into Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, or standing onstage at a rally in front of happy supporters.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Trump found himself in a less familiar forum: forced to answer simple questions from undecided voters at an ABC News town hall event. He didn’t have a roomful of reporters to turn into helpful foils, or a sea of red caps in front of him to draw energy from, but the town hall forum, filmed in Philadelphia earlier in the day and aired that night, provided a potential opportunity to project the image of a president willing to listen and connect with regular voters.
But Mr. Trump struggled to own “presidential.” When asked by one undecided voter if he would do anything different in terms of his behavior to create a more unified message if he won re-election, the president balked.
“I’m fighting a lot of forces,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t have time to be totally, as you would say, presidential. You have to get things done.”
At another point, when pressed on how the economic recovery appears to be benefiting wealthier Americans who invest in the stock market, the president made the tone-deaf claim that “stocks are owned by everybody.” About half of Americans own stocks, according to the CNN reporter and fact checker Daniel Dale.
His campaign strategist, Jason Miller, appeared to be doing rapid response online. “Anybody with retirements and pensions and 401k’s, absolutely,” he wrote on Twitter, trying to offer some context for the president’s statement.
Near the end of the night, Flora Cruceta, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, broke down in tears as she tried to ask Mr. Trump about his immigration policy on behalf of her cancer-stricken mother, who she said died last month.
Mr. Trump remained quiet as Ms. Cruceta composed herself, saying, “Just take your time, it’s fine.”
He added, “The love that you have for your mother, I can see that, it’s hard.”
Then he appeared to conflate the personal story of Ms. Cruceta’s mother’s battle with cancer with the coronavirus. “So many people and they die alone — they die alone, because this is such a vicious thing,” he said. “And hopefully the vaccines are going to be very soon, hopefully.”
He also played down the restrictive immigration actions he has taken at the border.
“So we are doing something with immigration that I think is going to be very strong because we want people to come into our country, people like you and like your mother,” he said.
The president also said that a coronavirus vaccine could be ready in “several weeks,” despite warnings by his own medical experts that it will take much longer, and that the virus would go away even without a vaccine because “you’ll develop like a herd mentality.” He meant herd immunity, which public health officials have warned might not happen until 70 percent of the population has been exposed to the virus.
The Biden campaign released a statement Tuesday night attacking the president’s comments. “Trump just confirmed tonight, yet again, that even after eight months of letting the worst public health crisis in 100 years spiral out of control that not only does he not have a plan — he doesn’t have a clue,” the campaign said.
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