President Trump deigned to take hard questions at a town hall on Tuesday night, and the verdict of his propagandists is in: Trump was treated with hideous unfairness even as he managed to convert the spectacle into a triumph through sheer force of his forthrightness and deep benevolence.

After Trump appeared at the ABC News forum, which featured Pennsylvania voters questioning Trump, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham pronounced the affair an “ambush” that could have been staged by the Democratic National Committee. The Fox chyron read:

ABC SPRINGS AMBUSH ON PRES TRUMP AT TOWN HALL

This response, and the town hall itself, capture a larger truth about the moment. When Trump is not permitted to freely dissemble with abandon or coddled by an interviewer who treats his magnificence as a foundational premise — as he so often is on Fox — he is actually very bad at answering difficult questions about his performance.

The notion that this spectacle constituted an “ambush” underscores the point: If this felt like a surprise attack, it’s only because direct and persistent questioning about his towering failures and broken promises really are politically damaging to him.

Follow-up questions are deadly

The questions from voters and moderator George Stephanopoulos were pointed, but they were largely premised on basic facts about Trump’s presidency. Over and over, Trump tried to lie away those facts, but (and this is the rare part) he was then pressed with follow-up questions based on more facts.

For instance, one woman asked Trump why he downplayed the coronavirus. When he repeated his frequent lie that he didn’t downplay it (he did, endlessly), she responded that he had admitted downplaying it himself, which he did in fact admit to Bob Woodward.

When Trump claimed our coronavirus mortality rate shows we have done “very well” compared to other countries, Stephanopoulous produced a chart debunking the claim, and pointed out that we have 4 percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of cases and deaths.

Trump spewed lots of other coronavirus nonsense, as Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler documents: He falsely claimed he’d inherited a ventilator shortage, absurdly blamed our high cases on testing (another area of national failure), and dramatically overstated the impact of his China travel restrictions (his weeks of dithering let the virus rampage here after that).

But some of the most damaging moments of all concerned health care.

After a woman with a preexisting condition pointedly asked Trump how he’d protect people like her, a remarkable exchange followed, in which Stephanopoulos pointed out that the Affordable Care Act contains extensive such protections, that Trump has repeatedly tried to repeal it, and that he supports a lawsuit that would wipe it out right now.

Trump kept saying over and over that he has his own secret health-care plan. But as Stephanopoulos noted, Trump has been promising a plan for a very long time, and it hasn’t materialized.

The whole exchange is worth watching and should loom large in the remainder of the campaign:

“I have it all ready, and it’s a much better plan,” Trump insisted, demonstrating a level of contempt for the intelligence of voters that countless of them will find insulting. But, notably, Trump was pushed to this point of self-incriminating absurdity by hard questions.

To top it all off, Trump again insisted the coronavirus will just go away, and actually said the public will develop a “herd mentality,” when he meant herd immunity. That not only hints at his contempt for voters; it also demonstrated — along with that health-care exchange — his lack of real answers to our most pressing challenges.

Yet, after all this, Trump’s pollster told Ingraham that Trump had “answered those questions,” while hailing him for demonstrating “empathy.” That was a reference to an exchange in which Trump showed the bare minimum of humanity toward a woman who’d lost her mother — before abruptly pivoting to blaming China!

But Ingraham appeared to understand how damaging this had been. Baffled, she likened the questioning to the work of the “Trump resistance,” and asked: “Why did the president decide to do this?”

Yes, why did Trump expose himself to difficult questions about his record from voters, anyway? Didn’t he know in advance how risky this could be?

Big holes in the protective shield

Remember, Trump himself believes he’s entitled to his very own 24/7 propaganda network that doesn’t commit such heresies. When Fox News lapses from its role in that regard, which it sometimes does, Trump rages at it as a form of profound betrayal.

Indeed, last year a Fox anchor felt compelled to respond to Trump’s fury over this by clarifying, “Mr. President, we don’t work for you,” while admitting that many Trump supporters had come to expect and demand that the network show absolute fealty to him.

In a way, the Tuesday night town hall really was an ambush. It was an ambush of facts and follow-up questions that blew more big holes in the protective shield his propagandists have tried to construct around a record of extraordinary failure.

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