Donald Trump and his allies signaled Thursday that he is ready to move past the controversies that have dominated the 10 days since the first presidential debate and that he will try to stay focused on policy, not attacks, at the second debate on Sunday.
The Republican presidential nominee appeared more controlled on the campaign trail on Wednesday and Thursday than he was last week, sticking with scripted speeches, mostly avoiding interviews and sending tweets that appeared to have been closely edited, if not entirely composed, by his staff. He denounced interruptions during debates, announced plans to campaign with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin on Saturday and said he would avoid mentioning Bill Clinton’s affairs during Sunday’s town hall with Hillary Clinton in St. Louis.
In the moments that Trump went off-script, stumbles returned. At a rally in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday night, Trump bragged about being able to properly pronounce the state’s name and proceeded to mispronounce it. In an interview with a local television station, he seemed unfamiliar with a pivotal state issue — the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain — and said that if China and the United States became engaged in a trade war that hurt Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas and other tourism businesses, he would “cut off relationships with China.”
Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told reporters Thursday that he expects Trump to be “much better prepared” on Sunday and not use “the kind of personal and harsh attacks that he has been threatening.”
“We expect a more focused, more prepared Trump at this debate,” Mook said. “What we’re enthusiastic about is that this will be a town hall, that the candidates will be taking questions from voters. . . . And so the real question for us is: Will Donald Trump come with any specific plans? Will he have a command of the issues such that he can really address people’s questions and really explain to them how he will in fact make any difference.”
Trump was off the campaign trail for most of Thursday, but he returned to stoke existing feuds and spark new ones at what was billed by his campaign as a town hall event in New Hampshire on Thursday evening. The event was staged before a friendly audience.
He attacked Clinton, alleging with no evidence that when she says she is preparing for debates she is actually “resting.” He went after Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who does not support him. He knocked journalists John Harwood and John King, as well as the media in general and even the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Trump also denied that he was using the event to prepare for Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, which will operate under a similar format.
“This isn’t practice. This has nothing to do with Sunday,” Trump said. Without any substantiation, he said that what Clinton does is “not debate prep – she’s resting.”
Later, he said: “She wants to build up her energy for Sunday night.”
Trump’s first debate performance Sept. 26 was widely viewed as a damaging flop, and even many of his supporters have said they hope he is better prepared for the St. Louis town hall. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, provided a stark contrast at the vice-presidential debate Tuesday night, where many declared him the clear winner.
“I watched — he won. He won on the issues,” Trump said of Pence at a campaign stop in Las Vegas on Wednesday, an apparent hint on where his own focus might be Sunday. “He won on — somebody said he won on style. The style doesn’t matter. The issues, the policy matters.”
Trump also told the New York Post’s Page Six that he does not plan to bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual history during the debate, something he had threatened to do if Hillary Clinton continues to bring up the disparaging comments he has made about women over the years.
“I want to win this election on my policies for the future, not Bill Clinton’s past,” Trump said in an email to the gossip column. “Jobs, trade, ending illegal immigration, veteran care and strengthening our military is what I really want to be talking about.”
In another move typical for an ordinary campaign but not for his, Trump issued a somber statement Thursday urging those in the path of Hurricane Matthew to follow local evacuation orders because “nothing is more important than the safety of your family.” He left it to the Republican National Committee to attack Hillary Clinton’s campaign for running commercials on the Weather Channel during the storm’s buildup.
Meanwhile, Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, campaigned for her father in southwest Ohio on Thursday, touring a manufacturing plant in the steel-mill town of Middletown and meeting with local female business owners.
Trump avoided national television interviews this week, allowing Pence to appear instead on Fox News on Wednesday night and several morning talk shows on Thursday. Pence didn’t stir up any controversy, as Trump is known to do, and he insisted Trump has abandoned several of his most controversial positions.
During an interview Thursday on CNN’s “New Day,” for example, anchor Chris Cuomo asked Pence about two Trump positions that Pence had previously condemned: A temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and Trump’s assertion that an Indiana-born judge whose parents were from Mexico couldn’t fairly rule in a federal fraud case involving Trump University.
“You condemned those comments,” Cuomo said. “Why do you not condemn them now?”
“Well,” Pence said, “because it’s not Donald Trump’s position now.”
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the same morning, host Joe Scarborough asked Pence point-blank if the campaign still wants a “ban on all Muslims,” and Pence replied: “Of course not.”
Pence is one of numerous Trump surrogates to repeatedly say Trump no longer wants a religion-based ban and would instead focus on halting immigration from unidentified countries compromised by terrorism, many of which have large Muslim populations.
But Trump has yet to formally drop his call for a temporary ban on allowing most foreign Muslims into the United States, and his campaign website still contains a “statement on preventing Muslim immigration” that calls for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Anne Gearan and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.