Donald Trump, currently trying to cast himself a softer candidate with an eye for policy, returned to his old ways with a vengeance on Thursday as he mocked an African-American pastor in Flint, Michigan and concocted a false story about his visit to her congregation.
The move was one of several recent examples where Trump’s efforts to rebrand his campaign toward outreach, discipline and substance have clashed with his natural penchant for insults, inaccurate boasts and conspiracy theories.
The latest episode began Wednesday when Trump took issue with Pastor Faith Green Timmons for interrupting him at her church. The candidate had begun to attack Hillary Clinton, prompting Timmons to ask him to focus on local issues.
"Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we've done in Flint, not give a political speech," the pastor said.
"Okay, that's good,” Trump said at the time. “Then I'm going to go back to Flint.”
But in a Thursday interview on "Fox & Friends," Trump depicted Timmons as a “nervous mess” who planned to blindside him all along in order to embarrass his campaign.
“When she got up to introduce me she was so nervous, she was shaking, and I said ‘Wow, this is sort of strange,’ and then she came up,” Trump said. “So she had that in mind, there’s no question about it.”
In Trumpian fashion, the candidate depicted the exchange as a dramatic — and inaccurate — morality play about a conniving religious leader attempting to sabotage him only to be upbraided by her predominantly black churchgoers, who stood with him against their own pastor.
“I’ll tell you what really made me feel good, the audience was saying ‘Let him speak, let him speak!’ and the audience was so great,” Trump said. “And these are mostly African-American people, phenomenal people, and they want to see change. I mean you know they’re living in — you have to see, the crime rate over there is ridiculous.“
In fact, the exact opposite had occurred. Rather than the congregation shouting support for Trump, local activists heckled him during his speech over past allegations of racial discrimination at his buildings. And Rev. Timmons was the one who asked them to quiet down and listen to Trump.
"Mr. Trump is a guest of my church," she said at the time. "And you will respect him."
Not only did Trump’s complaints on Fox News not match the reality of what happened in the church; they ran against the sentiment of inclusion he voiced less than 24 hours earlier in Canton, Ohio. There, he told the crowd that he was “willing to campaign anywhere ... even if some voters openly oppose me in a community, that’s fine, that’s their prerogative. I will listen and I will represent them if and when we win.”
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton calling “half” of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” the Trump campaign has conjured a sort of alternate campaign trail reality to contrast with their opponent. Repeatedly senior advisers and aides have spoken of “running a relentlessly positive campaign” that is policy-driven and optimistic.
But, as the Flint episode and other examples show, Trump’s behavior often undermines that vision, especially when he’s departed from the campaign’s prepared text in speeches, interviews and forums to pick fights and make blatantly untrue claims.
Trump’s comments about Rev. Timmons came a day after Trump, who had kept uncharacteristically quiet about opponent Clinton’s pneumonia scare, taunted her over the episode from the stage of his rally. Returning to an off-prompter, off-the-cuff style, Trump jabbed at Clinton’s health after days of discipline on the issue.
Subtly referencing the Clinton campaign’s excuse of “overheating” over the weekend, Trump declared that the chilly room was “122 degrees.” In the crowd and among the press corps, some wore light jackets.
“You think Hillary would be able to stand up here for an hour and do this?" he mused. "I don't think so."
Trump described all of the opponents he’d knocked out so far. “Boom, boom, boom,” he said with glee. “Now we have one left, and in all fairness she’s lying in bed getting better, and we want her better. We want her back on the trail. Right? We want her back on the trail." The restraint in his voice to not say more was palpable.
Earlier this week, he baselessly accused Fed chair Janet Yellen of a secret and “obviously political” plot with President Obama to juice the economy with low interest rates ahead of the election. But Trump himself lavished praise on Yellen for pursuing the exact same policies just months earlier, and warned further interest rate changes were “scary” and could create “very major problems.”
Moving to a new tack, Trump and top supporters have spent the last week trying to address concerns that Trump, who has regularly reversed himself on key issues, is lacking in policy details. The campaign rolled out a new maternity leave and child care plan this week to that end.
But even as Trump has pivoted to more substance, he's chosen to link his new message to false claims that Clinton has not matched his level of policy detail or refused to offer policy answers on topics where the campaign has done so.
“Our vision of hope stands in stark contrast to my opponent's campaign of hate,” Trump said Monday in Asheville, North Carolina. "Hillary Clinton has been running a hate-filled and negative campaign with no policy, no solutions, and no new ideas. By contrast, I've been going around the country offering very detailed plans for reform and change. All of these reform plans are available on our website, and they're extensive.”
In fact, Clinton’s website offers far more policy details than Trump’s, including a childcare policy that Trump alleged she did not have.
Trump is well aware of the gap between the two campaigns, because he mocked Clinton earlier in the general election for producing too many proposals and boasted that he would not follow suit because “my voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care.”
"She's got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day," Trump told TIME in June. "Nothing's ever going to happen. It's just a waste of paper."