President Trump is so protean, so news-cycle-driven, that any one performance is almost never a reliable indicator of what is to come. But the sprawling, 90-minute ambiguity that was his Tuesday night town hall with uncommitted Pennsylvania voters contained seeds of his homestretch strategy, and ample warnings of the challenges facing him.
Here are three things we learned about how Mr. Trump is approaching the final weeks of the race:
Everything was perfect. Then the pandemic ruined it.
It’s hard for even as unconventional a president as Mr. Trump to escape the are-you-better-off-now-than-you-were-four-years-ago question. The vast majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, so he has tried to divert blame to Democrats, going so far Tuesday night as to chide his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., who holds no office, for not enacting a mask mandate.
The president also tried a deflector-shield approach: He suggested that he was well on his way to solving the most vexing and intractable problems that have faced Americans for decades — racial strife, income inequality, environmental threats — and then…
“Before the plague, we were doing very well,” he said in response to a question about income inequality. That is not remotely true, according to many economists.
He is publicly workshopping answers on the virus.
Mr. Trump confused “herd mentality” and “herd immunity,” answered a question about his own lax mask-wearing with a story about how a nose-exposed waiter touched his plate, boasted that a vaccine would be ready in weeks (contradicting his own health officials), and baselessly claimed that he had saved more than two million lives by shuttering the nation’s borders.
By simultaneously denying and emphatically confirming that he downplayed the severity of the virus, the developer-president has built himself a box: If he starts wearing a mask he will have to buck the culture-war movement he stoked. If he keeps it off, he risks losing voters, especially women, who believe in science.
He may have to adjust to two-way conversation after years of self-protection.
For Mr. Trump, critics have been confined to the pages of newspapers, basic cable and the fluttering four-letter words he sees on signs through the tinted glass of his limo. The question now is whether the ABC event was a one-off or if he will repeat it — and try to appeal to a broader range voters — as some campaign advisers are urging him to do.
Outside the pillow-fort protection of Fox News and rallies, pent-up people (not all of them diehard Trump haters) have a lot to say to him after years of what has felt to many Americans like a one-sided conversation.
At times, it seemed like he was doing his version of a Biden impersonation, listening patiently as audience members posed sharp questions or, in one case, as a woman broke down in tears. But it did not appear to come easily.
Ellesia Blaque, an assistant professor from Philadelphia who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election but remains undecided this year, asked Mr. Trump, “Should pre-existing conditions, which Obamacare brought to fruition, be removed without —”
“No,” Mr. Trump said.