Donald Trump participated in his major first town hall event on Thursday night. And he loved every strange minute of it.
Forced to abandon his preferred formats of frenzied campaign rallies and acid-tongued presidential debates, the Republican frontrunner reveled in his role as one of the most bombastic candidates to ever seek the Oval Office, unapologetically kicking the multiple hornet nests stirred up in the previous 48 hours while also trying to answer questions from real South Carolina voters.
Hours after Pope Francis implicitly criticized the billionaire’s immigration proposals -- namely the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico -- the former reality TV star took the stage at a CNN town hall in the Palmetto State to suggest that the lightly veiled criticism came after officials had whispered in the ear of His Holiness during his just-finished visit to Mexico.
"Somehow the government of Mexico spoke with the Pope, I mean they spent a lot of time with the Pope, and …I think that he heard one side of the story,” Trump said.
Then after quipping about the walls surrounding Vatican City, Trump allowed that the Pontiff’s words were “much softer than was originally reported in the media.”
“He’s got a lot of energy,” the real estate mogul said, paying the Pope the highest compliment in Trump’s world.
Trump brushed aside the controversy over his sending a cease-and-desist letter to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to stop airing a TV ad that features an old interview where he makes pro-choice comments. Cruz, currently in second place in South Carolina, refused to take the ad down and said he’s willing to go court over the issue.
“I like to send letters,” Trump joked, causing laughter from the audience. He said a “wonderful” court case is the one that will be heard in Illinois on Friday that challenges Cruz’s eligibility to run for president since he was born in Canada, a topic Trump has needled him about in the past.
When a woman asked Trump about his self-control, he shrugged that off, too, saying he couldn’t have built a successful business if he didn’t have the right temperament, adding that the country needs a “certain toughness” to defeat threats like ISIS.
“I deal with society, society loves me, and I can act differently for different people. But we don’t have time to be politically correct for our country,” he said.
The only time the billionaire seemed rattled was when he was pressed on a statement he made at the last GOP debate when he said President George W. Bush lied to the country to start the Iraq War.
“A lot of people agreed with what I said,” Trump said. "Going to in Iraq [ may be] the worst decision anybody has made, any president has made, in the history of this country.”
But in an exchange that might come back to haunt him in the next Republican debate, Trump, who doggedly said he opposed the Iraq War, was confronted by host Anderson Cooper with a Buzzfeed article quoting a 2002 radio interview with Howard Stern in which he said he supported invading Iraq.
“I could have said that,” Trump said. “By the time the war started, I was against the war.”
The town hall, coming just two days before the South Carolina GOP primary, is unlikely to change the minds of many voters, especially as polls show Trump enjoys a 20- to 30-point lead over his nearest challenger, Cruz.
However, those who uncomfortable with the idea that their state’s primary could very well put the billionaire on an unstoppable path to the Republican nomination, might give other contenders a second look.
Before Trump went on, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush fielded mostly softball questions that yielded milquetoast talking points when compared with the frontrunner’s almost stream-of-consciousness statements. Kasich delivered a performance drenched in positivity but short on specifics, while Bush gave answers that were a mix of personal anecdotes and wonky details.
By the end of the night, Trump was at full carnival tilt. Asked about his favorite food, he mentioned McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken before going on a several-minutes-long riff about deceased pop star Michael Jackson, who once honeymooned at one of his properties for a week and “didn’t leave his room the whole time.”
“I knew the real story of Michael Jackson,” Trump said, explaining the singer lost his confidence after bad plastic surgery.
Another rambling moment of reflection came when he was asked if there was "one thing you wish you didn't do."
"Maybe I work too hard," the billionaire replied. "I was a better father than I was a husband. But I worked very, very hard and I love doing it.
“So, not that I'd change anything, but if I did a little bit less, I probably wouldn't have had two marriages that didn't work out."