(RNS) Donald Trump is criticizing a pastor who interrupted his speech from her church’s pulpit, saying the woman was “a nervous mess” because she had clearly planned to upstage him.
“Something was up because I noticed she was so nervous when she introduced me,” Trump told the Fox News program “Fox and Friends” on Thursday morning (Sept. 15), a day after the Rev. Faith Green Timmons cut his address to her congregation short as he started criticizing his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us,” Timmons, pastor of the predominantly African-American Bethel United Methodist Church, said, adding he was not there to “make a political speech.”
Trump, who is struggling mightily to win over African-American voters, stopped by the church on a swing through Flint, Mich., which has made national headlines for its contaminated water crisis.
As Trump continued his remarks, the New York real estate developer was repeatedly challenged by some members of the crowd of about 50 people, including a woman who accused him of discriminating against black renters as a landlord in the 1970s.
“No, I never would, never would,” Trump replied to that charge.
He then made a few remarks about fixing Flint’s drinking-water issues before departing quickly, trailed by heckling.
Phoning in to the Fox morning show on Thursday — a friendly venue for the Republican nominee — Trump said Timmons had planned the interruption to embarrass him.
“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 (to interrupt). So she had that in mind, there’s no question about it,” Trump said.
Asked if the episode bothered him, he said no. “I mean, everyone plays their games. It doesn’t bother me.”
He also had a very different take on the congregation’s reactions, saying “the audience was so great” and was shouting to let him speak.
“These are mostly African-American people, phenomenal people, and they want to see change,” he said. “You have to see, the crime rate over there is ridiculous. The whole place is, not only the water, what they did with water is horrible, but the crime rate and all the other problems they have.
“I use the expression, ‘What do you have to lose?’” he said, reprising his pitch to African-American voters who he says have it so bad they might as well take a shot on an unconventional Republican like himself rather than a conventional Democrat like Clinton. “I’m going to fix it! What do you have to lose?”
The crowd at the church did not seem to appreciate that pitch, however.
The Associated Press reported that one black woman, Reneta Richard, yelled at him: “What do you mean, ‘African-Americans have nothing to lose?’”
Trump apparently heard it differently.
“I tell you, the audience was fantastic,” he said on Thursday. But Timmons, he said, “was like a nervous mess. So I figured something was up, really.”
NPR reporter Scott Detrow was at the church and also saw it far differently from Trump.
In a blog post on Thursday after Trump’s comments, Detrow said Timmons “didn’t appear nervous at all.”
He also wrote that when audience members started in on Trump, she stepped in to defend him, saying the Republican nominee was “a guest of my church, and you will respect him.”
“Thank you. Thank you, pastor,” Trump responded.
Trump was taking a different tack the next morning, however, which may solidify his base but may not help him with the audience he was hoping to court in that Flint church.
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of SpokaneFāVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.