Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the 71st Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in New York. (AP/Frank Franklin II)
NEW YORK — It was supposed to be his opening joke, but it landed with such heavy bitterness that it prompted scattered, uncomfortable laughter.
“A special hello to all of you in this room who have known and loved me for many, many years. It’s true,” Trump said as he took command of the dais at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner on Thursday evening, wearing a white tie and a black tuxedo coat that he kept tugging at.
“The politicians,” he continued. “They’ve had me to their homes, they’ve introduced me to their children, I’ve become their best friends in many instances. They’ve asked for my endorsement, and they always wanted my money. And even called me really a dear, dear friend. But then suddenly, decided when I ran for president as a Republican, that I’ve always been a no-good, rotten, disgusting scoundrel. And they totally forgot about me.”
Over the next 15 minutes, Trump gave a speech that might as well have been a eulogy for his presidential campaign.
He joked about the size of his hands and the size of his rival Hillary Clinton’s rally crowds, then compared himself to Jesus. He noted that the debate the night before — which ended with him angrily ripping his notes — has been called “the most vicious debate in the history of politics,” prompting him to reflect: “Are we supposed to be proud of that?” He joked about prosecuting Clinton if he ever gets elected president, accused the media of working for her and brought up the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
[An awkward night of jeers and barbs as Clinton and Trump share yet another stage]
“Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate Commission,” Trump said, as the crowd turned on him and started to boo, something that simply doesn’t happen at lavish charity dinners at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The face of one the guests sitting on the stage behind him was suddenly struck with horror.
“Hillary believes that it’s vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private,” Trump said, as the booing intensified.
Trump would go on to accuse Clinton of “pretending not to hate Catholics” and mock the Clinton Foundation’s work in Haiti. At one point, he wondered aloud if the crowd was booing him or Clinton, to which someone in the crowd answered: “You!”
Campaigning used to be fun for Trump. He used to bound onto rally stages bursting with energy and a bright-eyed sense of excitement that intensified as the crowd chanted his name and cheered his every word. He used to regularly schedule press conferences, call into news shows and chat with reporters, eager to spar with them. He used to say politically incorrect things and then watch his polling numbers increase. He used to be the winner.
One year ago, Trump had nothing to lose. Back then, as the political ruling class realized that Trump was not just a summer fad and had actually sparked a political movement, he found himself being taken seriously. Pundits marveled at his instincts, and he confidently mocked his opponents for lacking his brilliance. He was surrounded by an inexperienced but devoted staff, and he was beholden to no one.
But as Trump became his party’s presumptive nominee this spring and then its nominee this summer, he suddenly had a lot to lose. He was expected to ask rich people for money, play nice with party leaders and actually win the election. There was greater scrutiny of everything he said and of his colorful past. His exuberance on the campaign trail faded, although it would occasionally reappear when he addressed a particularly rowdy rally or had a particularly good week. His campaign leadership repeatedly changed, filling with operatives who often disagreed with his instincts.
In recent days, Trump has tried to explain away his low standing in the polls as a conspiracy carried out by the media, Democrats and Republicans — not a backlash against comments that he made in 2005 about forcing himself on women sexually or the series of woman who have since accused him of doing just that. If Trump loses, it will be because he was cheated, Trump has repeatedly told his supporters, urging them to go to polling places in neighborhoods other than their own on Election Day and “watch.”
The third presidential debate on Wednesday night in Las Vegas did not help Trump’s situation, especially as he called Clinton a “nasty woman” and declined to agree to accept the results of the election. As his staff members tried to explain his comments, Trump flew to Ohio.
Ahead of a Thursday afternoon rally at a country fairgrounds facility north of Columbus, Trump tweeted a vague accusation that Clinton “was inappropriately given the debate questions.” He then did two interviews with local television stations and abruptly walked away from both. A reporter from WCMH, the local NBC affiliate, asked Trump: “Nineteen days out from the election, you’ve been labeled a racist, you’ve been called a sexist, how …”
Trump turned and started to walk away, saying: “Thank you very much.”
She asked him to respond, and Trump said: “I am the least racist person you’ve ever met.”
Trump then continued walking away, ending the interview.
During a separate interview with WBNS, a CBS affiliate, Trump was asked to respond to accusations from Karena Virginia, who said at a press conference on Thursday that Trump groped her in 1998. Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, then jumped in to end the interview, which had already gone on longer than expected. Trump started to walk away and was again asked about the accusation.
“I know nothing about that,” Trump said. “No, I know nothing.”
Trump then gave a 33-minute speech before about 1,500 people in a county fairgrounds facility north of Columbus, a shorter than usual speech in front of a smaller than usual crowd.
“Seriously, the debate last night was amazing — and everybody said, I won, including every single online poll, and some had it at 90 and close to 90 percent, so that’s pretty cool,” Trump said rather halfheartedly, providing stats that are simply are not accurate.
Soon after, he was back at the Columbus airport, slowly climbing the steps to his personal jet. He was alone, holding a black umbrella as a light rain fell. There was a heaviness to his ascent.
Hours after that, Trump sat on the lavish dais, decorated with pale roses and white orchids, with his arms tightly folded as the glittering elite of New York repeatedly laughed at him. The dinner’s chairman, Alfred E. Smith IV, lashed out at Trump in a series of cutting jokes. Clinton went even further, hitting all of the topics that she knows get under Trump’s skin.
“Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a ‘four.’ Maybe a ‘five’ if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair,” Clinton said, as the crowd laughed and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani mouthed, “What?” Trump, his arms folded, cocked his head to the side and smirked, as his wife looked elegantly pained.
A few minutes later, Clinton said: “Maybe you saw Donald dismantle his prompter the other day, and I get that. They’re hard to keep up with, and I’m sure it’s even harder when you’re translating from the original Russian.”
Trump smiled and rocked in his seat, his face looking just slightly redder than usual.
Clinton recognized former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying it was a shame he didn’t speak because “I’m curious to hear what a billionaire has to say,” taking a swipe at Trump’s likely exaggerated net worth.
And she gave a shout-out to Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, saying: “She’s working day and night for Donald and because she’s a contractor, he’s probably not even going to pay her.” Conway, who has become subtly critical of her boss, quoted Clinton in a tweet and wrote: “A shout out from @HillaryClinton at #AlSmithDinner.”
As Clinton finished speaking, she received a standing ovation from many in the crowd. Trump clapped, then briefly stood, then sat down again, as if unsure what to do. Lip-readers caught him telling her that she did a good job. As the dinner ended, Trump shook hands with some of the others on the stage, while a line of people wanting to talk with Clinton grew. After a few minutes, Trump and his wife made their way toward the exit.
Before ducking out, Trump flashed the crowd a thumbs up.