'He was lying through his teeth.' ABC town hall participants weigh in on Trump's performance

A Black pastor who asked President Trump about his "Make America Great Again" slogan tells CNN's Don Lemon the President's response is what he expected.

Posted: Sep 16, 2020 6:01 PM
Updated: Sep 16, 2020 6:01 PM

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Voters stood up and spoke the truth to President Trump on Tuesday night. And Trump had a very hard time coming out of his Fox bubble to face real questions. That's what made the ABC town hall so important to see.

So how did it go? Did the questioners feel like they were heard? Did they feel like the president addressed their concerns? I reached out to all the participants I could find as the taped town hall was broadcast on ABC. Several of the questioners were not easily Googleable. But three people responded right away, beginning with Carl Day, the Philadelphia pastor who asked Trump this question: "When has America been great for African Americans in the ghetto of America?"

Trump talked about the pre-Covid economy and cited "tremendous African American support." Day pressed him for historical context. When was America "great?" Trump still didn't answer. "I don't feel like he adequately answered it," Day told me, "but essentially in doing so, he actually did. America was never great for black Americans in the ghetto."

The very first question

Paul Tubiana of Bethlehem, PA was the first questioner. He asked: "Mr. President, I voted for you in 2016. I'm a conservative, pro-life and diabetic. I've had to dodge people who don't care about social distancing and wearing face masks. I thought you were doing a good job with the pandemic response until about May 1. Then you took your foot off the gas pedal. Why did you throw vulnerable people like me under the bus?"

I held my breath. Trump has never been challenged about his mishandling of the pandemic quite like that before. Trump's initial response: "Well, we really didn't, Paul." And then he blamed China and promised that "we're within weeks of getting" a vaccine.

"He didn't answer anything," Tubiana told me afterward. "He was lying through his teeth."

Tubiana is like so many people: As the pandemic raged, "I was feeling scared, alone and powerless," he said. He said "there were failures of government on both sides of the aisle" last winter and spring, but he felt like Trump stopped providing leadership as the crisis continued from spring to summer. He said he thought Trump stuck to "canned responses" at the town hall.

Trump 'reanimated me to vote'

Ellesia Blaque, an English professor at Kutztown University, brought up health care: Blaque was born with sarcoidosis and said she'll die without the medication covered by her expensive insurance plan. Blaque asked what he is doing to protect people like her, and he dodged.

"He didn't answer my question," Blaque said.

She said she left the event fuming -- but resolved to do something about it. Going into the town hall, she said, she was "on the fence" about voting at all in 2020. That's why she qualified as an uncommitted voter by ABC's standard. But now, she said, "I'm going to vote for Biden." Trump "reanimated me to vote."

>> To be sure, other questioners may have been thrilled by the president's answers. These are the three participants who replied to me on deadline.

Notes and quotes about the town hall

-- One of WaPo's fact-checks: "Trump says he couldn't have slowed coronavirus, though experts have said he could..."

-- Daniel Dale's recap of a cringe-worthy moment toward the end of the town hall: "A crying voter tells Trump at length about how her mom, a fellow immigrant, died of cancer, and asks a question on her mom's behalf about immigration. Trump repeatedly talks about how her mom died of 'Covid.'"

-- The NYT's Maggie Haberman: "Trump, by only doing rallies and almost never doing town hall forums, has been insulated from the kind of voter interactions that usually help incumbents as they're running. But he craves adulation and many of his aides enable it, so this town hall is bracing for him."

-- The LAT's Chris Megerian: "It's striking how little new the president has to say. He's mostly recycling the same things he's been saying for months or years."

-- Susan Glasser: "Trump is like an American tourist abroad. He says the same thing over and over again, just getting louder each time, entirely unable to speak the language of his interlocutor or even trying."

-- Fox's framing on "The Ingraham Angle" right after the town hall ended: "ABC SPRINGS AMBUSH ON PRES TRUMP AT TOWN HALL." The not-so-subtle message: Stay on Fox, don't stray...

Views from the right and left...

Trump 2020 legal adviser Jenna Ellis wrote: "Can you imagine Sleepy Joe answering these questions and being interrupted by George and even just following the conversation??"

When Trump criticized Joe Biden for not following through on a national mask mandate, Biden responded on Twitter, "To be clear: I am not currently president." Then he used the moment to ask for donations. Biden will have his turn in a town hall setting on CNN Thursday evening...

Darcy says Stephanopoulos was steamrolled

Oliver Darcy writes: "I found it rather maddening to watch the George Stephanopoulos special with Trump. Throughout the 90-minute town hall, he failed to ask obvious follow-up questions as POTUS rambled and spread misinfo. For instance, Trump repeatedly said that 'a lot of people think the masks are not good.' After letting him get away with that statement a couple times, Stephanopoulos finally asked Trump who has made that claim. Trump replied that 'waiters' had, handing the moderator an easy follow-up on a platter -- no pun intended. But Stephanopoulos apparently didn't find that answer worth interrogating, and he moved on. It was frustrating to see, especially after Jonathan Swan showed how effective it can be to just ask basic follow-ups."

>> Darcy adds: "I pictured viewers at home shouting at their TV sets. 'You have a health plan ready to go? WHY HAVEN'T YOU UNVEILED IT?' And so on..."

>> Olivia Nuzzi tweeted, "I understand you have to pick your battles when you interview this president. But so far, there's been very little follow up" to "Trump's most dishonest and confusing statements." Later, she said "Stephanopoulos's approach has been mostly passive, and even his interjections have been quite friendly. Whose interests does this serve?"

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