Donald Trump stood sweating in a crowded gym, fielding questions from voters on agriculture fees, family court disputes and military base closures.
The Republican front-runner was no longer in his wheelhouse.
Trump is often at ease parrying questions about trade, tax inversions and the deals Carly Fiorina made as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. But on a host of issues – some as pronounced as the future of Social Security – Trump has shown little interest in engaging, much less detailing, his policy positions.
On Thursday evening, one voter asked Trump about GOP presidential candidate John Kasich’s recent remark that the military base realignment and closure process keeps workers “on their toes.” The Ohio governor’s comment has drawn scrutiny in a state that is home to some 130,000 veterans and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
“You’re saying that’s what’s happening, right?” Trump said. “I heard that yesterday, actually. Not a good situation. Okay, one more question,” Trump said.
When a man complained about fees from the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture, Trump declared, “Things are going to change!” Then he quickly moved on.
At one point a mother stood up. “My question is a little closer to home,” she said, explaining that she has spent years and thousands of dollars to keep her family safe. She asked Trump how he would fix the court system so other families wouldn’t endure what she has gone through.
“Did you say safe? To keep them safe?” Trump asked. “What are you doing?”
“It’s over now,” the woman replied. “The family court system is broken.”
Trump’s reply: “The whole court system is broken by the way, not just family court.”
Then he awkwardly pivoted to an attack on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“I do think that should be a local situation, though. I’ll give you an example, Jeb Bush loves Common Core,” he said. “I want to see local people teaching your kids.”
Town hall events can be tricky business for any candidate. Most campaigns don’t screen questions ahead of time (Trump’s did not Thursday evening), and voters’ queries can test the bounds of any candidate’s knowledge on everything from foreign policy to obscure local issues.
But unlike other candidates who empathize with voters’ personal stories or promise to take a deeper look at local concerns, Trump dispatched queries Thursday with one-sentence replies.
By the time he was asked about his plan to ensure Social Security remains solvent, he simply proclaimed, “We are going to save Social Security.”
Trump’s selective issue engagement was evident at CNN’s GOP debate as well. The candidate all but disappeared for long stretches as the rest of the field debated foreign policy issues, climate change and criminal justice.
When asked at the debate whether upper-income individuals should forgo their Social Security benefits, Trump said he would be willing to do so personally, but “as a policy, I would almost leave it up to the people.”
On Thursday, Bush questioned whether Trump was prepared to run for president.
“I have big problems with his lack of interest in learning about the job of being president of the United States,” Bush told Fox News. “This is a big, serious job and you have to have the skills necessary to lead.”
It didn’t take long before Trump’s move-it-along approach began causing the candidate headaches.
“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims,” the first questioner at Trump’s New Hampshire event said. Then the man went on to say that President Barack Obama – who is a Christian – is actually Muslim and “not even American.”
Trump – who has a history of questioning whether Obama is a natural-born citizen – did not refute the premise of the question.
By Friday morning, he was under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike for his failure to do so.