On The Trail, Trump Avoids Lingering Questions About Birther Stance

Sep 20, 2016

When in North Carolina, never pass up barbecue and cherry cobbler.

That was Donald Trump's approach between campaign rallies in the battleground state on Tuesday. The Republican nominee stopped for lunch and a few handshakes at Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro.

Retail stops like this are common in politics – especially during the primary season – and they're often a chance for both voters and reporters to ask questions. But at this stage of the campaign, they feel more choreographed – requiring careful planning and a team of Secret Service agents scouring the place beforehand.

Nonetheless, there was a measure of spontaneity for diners and servers who came to the restaurant anticipating a barbecue sandwich or a routine day at work – certainly not a visit from the Republican presidential nominee.

Katie Cook, who works in the kitchen, audibly gasped several times as Trump walked in.

"It's awesome – definitely he's got my vote," Cook said. She'd only heard Trump was coming about 10 minutes beforehand, and she said it was a surprise.

As the real estate developer made the rounds flanked by staffers and his security team, journalists shouted, "Mr. Trump, will you take some questions?" The AP's Jill Colvin called out, "Mr. Trump, when did you change your mind about the birther issue? When did you decide that President Obama was actually born in the United States?"

Trump had refused to answer those questions on Friday at a media event in Washington, D.C., where he praised his new hotel development, honored a group of veterans – and then briefly acknowledged that President Obama was indeed born in the United States while making a false claim that doubts about Obama's birthplace were started by Hillary Clinton. Trump then abruptly departed the room.

For years, Trump was the most vocal advocate for the "birther" movement questioning Obama's legitimacy to be president. He has yet to explain what caused his shift in thinking, given that he continued to push the myth for years after Obama released his long-form birth certificate.

At the restaurant on Tuesday, Trump again bypassed questions from the press. The group was soon ushered out, as campaign staffers said it was almost time to head to the airport. Trump and his staff came out 34 minutes later.

While reporters sat in the van, Trump was inside dining on a pork plate, coleslaw, and hush puppies, according to campaign aides. A few minutes later, there was an update: Cherry cobbler for dessert.

Then, Trump emerged, waving and gesturing toward the press van, and then to a cardboard box one of his staffers was carrying. Soon, the aide appeared outside the door, as Trump's social media strategist Dan Scavino looked on, filming the offering of cherry cobbler to the press.

The desserts were a nice gesture, though they went largely untouched by the traveling press — the ice cream on top was melting, and flight attendants on the chartered press plane said they had to remove the cobblers.

But most reporters were hoping for something more from Trump: A press availability. It's been close to two months since he's held a formal news conference in the United States — aside from a brief question-and-answer session with a small group of reporters on his plane, and his appearance with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, in Mexico City, a trip the traveling press corps wasn't allowed to join.

Trump's campaign went after his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, for going months without holding a press conference – a streak she's recently broken. Trump is beginning to rack up his own streak, at a time when both candidates are facing questions about how they'd lead the country.

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