CHARLOTTE — President Trump continued his rhetorical balancing act between consolation and condemnation at a campaign rally here Friday night, denouncing political violence but ramping up verbal attacks on the media and his Democratic rivals.
With the nation on edge in the wake of a mail-bomb plot targeted at more than a dozen Democratic Party officials and supporters, Trump opened his remarks by pledging to do “everything in my power to stop” politically motivated attacks. Police have tied the bombs to a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc of Florida, and Trump said the perpetrator must be “prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Everyone will benefit if we can end the politics of personal destruction. We must unify as a nation in peace love and harmony,” the president said. But as he has in the past several days, Trump quickly pivoted to blaming the media for what he described as unfair coverage of him and his Republican allies.
“We do not blame the Democrat party for the radical, leftists who destroy public property and unleash violence and mayhem,” he continued. “The media try to attack incredible Americans who are trying to support our movement trying to give power back to the people.”
Trump spoke for more than an hour, and he and his supporters both appeared energized after a trying week in which a president not known for moderation sought to strike a unifying tone at times, only to appear to undermine it by ramping up his rhetorical missives.
With just 11 days remaining until the midterm elections, Trump’s closing argument has focused on rallying his conservative base. In his remarks, Trump also railed against Democrats, accusing them of failing to support tougher immigration laws and blaming them for a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants that are traveling by foot north through Mexico toward the U.S. border.
At one point, Trump, whose administration is expected to send up to 1,000 military troops to help fortify border security operations, appeared to allude obliquely to a plan being considered by the White House that would close the border to migrants seeking asylum, a move that would likely face political blowback and legal challenges.
“Watch next week what’s going to happen,” Trump told the crowd. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be great.”
In fact, the caravan is still weeks away from reaching the United States and the numbers in the group have already dwindled from an estimated 7,200 at the beginning of the week to around 3,000. Democrats have accused Trump of fanning fears over inflated security concerns over a group featuring mostly families with children.
Rally attendees on Friday expressed opinions similar to the president’s rhetoric. In interviews, they lamented America’s hyperpartisan atmosphere and desire for the country to unify while at the same time eyeing the news of the bomb threats with suspicion.
“Nobody knows what’s going on. It’s terrorism no matter who did it. The person [who did it] needs to pay for it,” said C.B. McKinnon, 52, who owns a water treatment business in North Carolina.
He understood why someone sending bombs to elected officials was major news, “but the timing of it bothers me. It always seems like this happens before an election. It’s suspicious at worst. Coincidence at best.” He worried it would “influence the election.”
Mary Raynor, 64, also was skeptical. She believed it was “too early to say” what motivated the attacks but believed, “it’s suspicious timing.”
“Why did these things happen before the election?” she asked. “This stuff takes time to play out. I’m not going to respond emotionally.”
Corey LaCosta, 49, worries that “a lot of voters don’t know what way they’re going” and that major, partisan news could influence the election. He said he hopes it was a “lone wolf act, not that he was funded by someone.” He worried “reverse psychology” was being used, and cited the pro-Trump stickers found on a van allegedly belonging the suspect. He worried the incident would influence the election.
“You have to try to be civil with the other side,” said Olivia Keenan, 19, who attended the rally with her parents and twin sister. The family viewed themselves as independents, but wanted to hear from Trump. “It’s going to get to the point where its so polarized that something like bombs are happening.”
All of these voters believed Trump was fulfilling his campaign promises and that the country had improved since his election. They frequently cited his tax cuts, his support of the military, and his commitment to improving border security as top successes and embraced his tone in recent weeks. “Trump keeps his word. Other politicians don’t,” said Raynor.
“I want a strong president who says what he feels,” said LaCosta.
Trump was in North Carolina to stump for Rep. Ted Budd and Mark Harris, both Republican congressional candidates in tight races. Trump had already visited the state in support of the duo in late August. Republicans are fighting to maintain control of the U.S. House after the midterms.
In the 13th district, just north of Charlotte, incumbent Budd faces a serious challenge from Democrat Kathy Manning. Budd’s own political story dovetails curiously with Trump’s. He won the first election he ever ran, in 2016, first beating out a packed primary field before decisively winning the general. He now faces a challenge from Manning, herself a first-time candidate, who cited health care as one of her primary motivators for running.
Meanwhile, Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready are battling for the 9th Congressional District, a race currently rated as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. The contests’ stakes have drawn conservative stars such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee; Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, and Karen Pence, the wife of the vice president in support of Harris. McCready has hit the trail with former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
“Mark Harris is another true fighter for North Carolina,” Trump said. “He will vote to protect your jobs and cut regulations like never before. He will vote to save your health care, secure our border and stop illegal immigration.”
Both Harris and Budd have been outraised by their Democratic opponents.
“They have run fantastic campaigns, they’re doing very well, but honestly get out and vote. Let’s not take a chance,” Trump said.
The two candidates briefly took the stage with Trump and vowed to work with the president to enact his policies. The president, in turn, cast their opponents as radical liberals.
Trump called Budd’s opponent, Manning, “an extreme liberal democrat” and criticized her for being “a big fan of Maxine Waters,” a Democratic member of Congress who has been a target of Trump’s ire, as well as a target of two of this week’s mail bombs.
Waters had told her supporters in June: “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
As boos ensued, Trump fed the crowd. “Maxine Waters!” he repeated. But then he stopped himself.
“I want them to say, ‘He was so nice tonight.’”
Nakamura reported from Washington.