MIAMI — His Democratic opponent was more than 1,000 miles away when he took the stage here, but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump from delivering a performance every bit as defiant.
Fresh off a North Carolina campaign rally where a sea of mask-less supporters greeted him with adoration, Trump faced a vastly different environment when he sat down Thursday night — several feet away from NBC “Today" anchor Savannah Guthrie and dozens of socially distanced voters — for a televised town hall.
Within minutes, he was sparring with Guthrie on everything from rising Covid-19 infection rates that several states have faced this week to whether a far-right conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which claims Satan-worshipping pedophiles have infiltrated the federal government, is worthy of attention.
"I just don’t know about QAnon. Let’s waste a whole show. You start off with white supremacy? I denounced it. Why aren’t you asking me about antifa? Why aren’t you asking me about the radical left? I condemn pedophilia," Trump said, slamming Guthrie for her line of questioning.
It was an opportunity for Trump to dismiss the media, scientific experts, political opponents and anything else in his way with voting underway in most of the country. And Trump tried to make the most of it, despite an audience size that was set to be a small fraction of what an official presidential debate would’ve garnered.
Like a boxer consulting his coach during breaks, the president was egged on by aides when Guthrie and the audience paused for commercials. Some clustered around the president for several minutes during the breaks.
At the edge of the stage during the event stood White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, director of strategic communications Alyssa Farah and senior campaign adviser David Bossie. Trump’s daughter Tiffany and Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of his eldest son Don Jr., were also seated among the audience.
During one TV break, Trump stood up and acknowledged a small audience behind him — some of whom delivered a whoop and cheer, another calling out “Latinos for Trump.”
It was a sticky, warm night — temperatures in the low 80s — for the event on an outdoor terrace at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The setting marked a starkly different scene from the flurry of rallies Trump has embarked upon in the final three weeks before Election Day. Most of the rallies feature crowds packed shoulder to shoulder just like they were pre-pandemic, many not wearing masks. Thursday’s town hall event forced Trump into an environment designed for social distancing, with many attendees shown wearing masks.
Similar to his pugnacious performance in the first presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden last month, Trump repeatedly interrupted Guthrie amid questions about whether he would accept the 2020 election results and about his skepticism of protective face coverings after suffering from Covid-19 himself. When she pressed him to condemn the QAanon conspiracy theory, after questions about whether he would denounce white supremacists, he shot back, "So cute."
There were other moments when the president showed discipline that was all but absent from his first debate-stage performance, however.
When the moderator tried to pin down Trump on whether he wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned, a move that would make abortion illegal, the president seemed to recognize the perils of a clear answer. Most voters do not support such a move, but Trump in 2016 argued for punishing women who got abortions and has clearly stated he‘d appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the law.
Answering a questioner at the town hall, Trump focused instead on getting his court pick in place. “I would like to see a brilliant jurist make a decision,” the president said carefully. “I did not tell her what decision she should make and I think it would be inappropriate to say so right now.”
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