Before a friendly audience, Trump faced some pointed, if gently phrased, questions from his own backers, as one man who was identified as a Trump supporter asked the president if “we can deliver your message without the controversial rhetoric.”
A notably subdued Trump twice said that he appreciated the question, but defended how he communicates as his way of responding to criticism.
“When they hit us, we have to hit back,” Trump said. “I could turn my cheek, but I wouldn’t be sitting up here if I turned my cheek.”
Trump later mocked Biden over a series of verbal gaffes, pausing for the audience’s laughter, and said, “there’s something going on there.” The president also argued that the House impeachment over his asking a foreign leader to investigate Biden damaged Biden more than it did him.
“They aimed at Trump and they took Biden down,” Trump said.
Trump chose Scranton, Pa., his chief rival’s birthplace, to hold the event, according to Fox News, which said it has let other presidential candidates select the locations for their town halls.
The presidential motorcade sped by an electronic billboard that read “Scranton is Joe Biden country,” and Trump was greeted by dozens of protesters near the Scranton Cultural Center, the venue for the town hall.
But inside, Trump faced a much friendlier welcome, as the audience greeted him with warm applause and repeatedly chanted “four more years!” during a commercial break. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, was similarly greeted with applause by supporters before the event began.
If Biden is the Democratic nominee, northeast Pennsylvania will be a hard fought region. In 2016, Trump held a rally in Scranton the night before Election Day. He overperformed expectations in that region of the state leading to his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania.
Trump said he’d been prepping for a run against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but now was resetting his sights on Biden. He blamed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who suspended her candidacy for the presidential nomination earlier Thursday, for siphoning votes from Sanders by staying in the race beyond Super Tuesday.
He was echoing a criticism relayed by some liberals upset that their flank of the party did not unite behind a candidate like the moderates did behind Biden shortly before Tuesday’s primaries.
“If she’s a true progressive, which probably she is, she probably should’ve dropped out three days ago,” Trump said. “Bernie Sanders would’ve won five, six, seven states, would’ve won Minnesota … So when you look at it, she did him no favors. That was not a good friendship.”
On the subject of friendship, Trump was asked in a lightening range to name his closest friend in Washington. Trump demurred, saying there were too many, but that he’s close to Vice President Pence and members of Congress, even Democrats.
“We have great people in Washington and great Democrats too, I speak to the Democrats too, believe it or not,” Trump said. “We have great, great people in Washington. It’s going to come together. And it’s going to be sooner than you think.”
Trump sounded a similar uncharacteristically collegial note when a woman wearing a sparkling Trump pin told him people in her life don’t speak to her because she’s a supporter of his. She asked him how he would bring the country together.
Trump reiterated an answer from earlier about how he has to fight back, but also said, “I really believe we are going to win this next election and when we do, the other side is going to say okay, that’s it, let’s get along.”
It’s a similar claim often made by Biden that his victory would soften the partisan polarization.
While the town hall touched on policy from health care to immigration to foreign policy, other questions forced the president to offer some personal introspection.
Trump said he missed being able to walk down the street or into a store where he’d be recognized, but could still do it.
“I miss that sort of free life and this is not a free life,” Trump said. “But I love what we are doing because we are accomplishing more than anybody has ever — I view it as we’re saving this country, this country was going wrong.”