SANDOWN, New Hampshire — Donald Trump took the stage at a town hall here Thursday night and insisted the forum was not set up to help prepare him for Sunday’s town hall-style debate against Hillary Clinton.
And after fielding a dozen softballs for just a half-hour from a hand-picked group of voters inside the small, sweltering wood-paneled room, it seemed Trump was right: the forum had “nothing to do” with the upcoming debate, despite Trump campaign sources telling CNN earlier Thursday that the evening’s town hall event would serve as a practice run.
If it did, Trump’s performance Thursday night and his repeated mocking of the importance of debate prep raised serious questions about how Trump will perform at the debate Sunday just two weeks after he botched his first debate appearance due to what aides described as a lack of preparation.
“They were saying this is practice for Sunday. This isn’t practice,” Trump said. “We’re just here because we wanted to be here.”
And with a touch of bravado, he repeatedly mocked Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail to prepare for the debate, stating multiple times that she was “resting,” in keeping with his past critiques of Clinton’s health and stamina.
“Do you really think that Hillary Clinton is debate prepping for three or four days?” Trump asked mockingly. “It’s not debate prep. She’s resting, she’s resting. She’s resting and I want to be with the American people.”
But as Trump prepared to field questions from voters on Thursday, it appeared as though the event had been set up to prepare Trump for his next showdown with Clinton.
Howie Carr, a talk radio host supporting Trump, would serve as moderator, and he announced to Trump that he would man a clock timing his responses to two minutes each. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a town hall aficionado who has been helping Trump prepare for the coming debate, stood just a couple yards away, carefully observing Trump’s performance.
And as Carr read questions from the voters in the room, each would stand up to identify themselves, giving Trump a chance to interact — with pleasantries or an exchange of glances — with them.
But Trump revealed little interest in participating in a mock debate.
Rather than working the room, Trump remained standing in the same spot, just a few feet from Carr who read off the questions Trump’s supporters had submitted.
And while he offered some jokes in an effort to connect with the crowd, Trump made little effort to answer specific questions posed to him and frequently went off on tangents as if he were delivering a speech at one of his rallies.
When asked how he would define the middle class, Trump offered up a platitude that “the middle class has been forgotten in this country” before pivoting to his tax plan and proposals to cut regulations. He did not offer a definition.
And when asked whether he would fire FBI Director James Comey — who recommended no charges against Clinton after investigating her use of a private email server — Trump demurred, saying simply that he was “very disappointed.”
While Carr followed up a couple of times to press Trump further on a question, the supportive radio host did little in the way of offering Trump a preview of the tough-minded journalists who will moderate Sunday’s debate.
New Hampshire voters pride themselves in posing tough, thoughtful and well-informed questions to their candidates — they believe it is part of their role in testing a candidate’s fitness to be commander in chief. All of the questions were handpicked on Thursday night, and many of them were laughably soft — including one asking Trump about his most important early childhood memory. (He recounted playing with blocks at his father’s feet in his office, a memory that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, also recalled in her speech at the Republican National Convention).
Trump also opened the forum by delivering opening remarks comparable to those he would offer up at a rally, addressing everything from his standing in various polls to mocking Clinton’s decision to take time off from the campaign trail to prepare from the next debate.
Trump also read from prepared remarks extending his prayers to those living in the path of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm set to make landfall in Florida on Friday.
“To all of my friends in Florida, please know that we are praying for you and everyone in the path you’ve got to take care of yourself, you’ve got to get out of the area, you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen because it could be a really bad one,” Trump said, adding that he spoke with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a supporter of his, earlier in the day.
Still, Trump offered some insight into the performance he may deliver on Sunday — one peppered with jokes and his knack for storytelling, time permitting.
And Trump also showed that he can effectively interact with voters as he delivers his responses.
Dismissing any concerns about Republican holdouts on his candidacy, Trump suggested Republican officials endorsing Clinton this cycle were doing so because he would “never use these people.”
“So then, they announced in a group they’re going to Hillary,” Trump said, prompting a man near the front row to begin shaking his head.
“You, you understand,” Trump said.
In the lead-up to Thursday night’s town hall, Trump aides would not say on the record that the New Hampshire event was a mock forum to prepare Trump for Sunday.
Boris Epshteyn, a senior Trump campaign adviser, insisted the forum was not a practice session for Sunday, but still added that the town hall would help showcase why Trump will be effective in Sunday’s town hall format.
Epshteyn said Trump can “relate to the American people like no other candidate since Ronald Reagan” and suggested Clinton would struggle on Sunday because “you can’t be scripted in a forum.”