When Donald Trump kicked off the Q&A at his town-hall event in Rochester, New Hampshire, Thursday night, he was probably hoping for a terrific question about something super-luxury and really fantastic, like his hair or his money. Instead, the first question came from a man whose main concern was “a problem in this country … called Muslims.” Uh-oh.
“We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American,” the man continued. “But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us? That’s my question: When can we get rid of [it/them]?” (The last word of the man’s question is cut off, so it’s not quite clear what he wants to get rid of.)
For other politicians, this would be a great opportunity to show a little gravitas by standing up to the questioner’s bigotry and correcting his incorrect assertions about President Barack Obama’s religion and nationality, but not Trump, who has been enthusiastically fueling conspiracy theories about the president’s birthplace for years. Not only did the Donald conspicuously fail to correct his interlocutor, he even seemed to encourage his line of thinking, saying, “We’re going to be looking at that, and plenty of other things.”
The incident invited an unfavorable comparison with Senator John McCain, who, as the Republican nominee in 2008, scolded a supporter who said she didn’t trust then-candidate Obama because he was “an Arab.” The closest Mitt Romney ever got to the “birther” conspiracy theory on the campaign trail was cracking a joke that alluded to it.
According to a CNN poll from this week, 43 percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim; 61 percent of Democrats think he is a Protestant.
Doing damage control later in the evening, Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told the Washington Post that Trump’s response was specifically to the question about “training camps,” adding, “The bigger issue is that Obama is waging a war against Christians in this country. They need support and their religious liberty is at stake.” Lewandowski declined to say whether Trump shares his questioner’s belief that Obama is a Muslim.
On Friday morning, Trump’s opponents, unsurprisingly, began to chastise the front-runner for failing to contradict one of the ardent supporters fueling his oddly resilient campaign.
“I’ll just tell you what I would do, and I wouldn’t have permitted that,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie told the Today show. “If someone brought that up at a town-hall meeting of mine, I would’ve said, ‘No, listen. Before we answer, let’s clear some things up for the rest of the audience.’ And I think you have an obligation as a leader to do that.”
Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Cut it out.”
Update: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was also asked about the incident at a press conference on Friday. “Is anybody really surprised this happened at a Donald Trump rally? Anybody paying attention to Republican politics isn’t surprised. Offensive views are part of Trump’s base.” Earnest added that there is “no evidence” of the “training camps” discussed at Trump’s rally.