BEAUREGARD, Ala. — President Trump toured a swath of tornado-ravaged Alabama Friday by helicopter and SUV, inspecting the devastation of a rural neighborhood where 23 were killed in tornadoes last weekend — with houses stripped to their foundations, branches twisted on top of one another in sinewy piles and mattresses and home supplies perched in trees.
The president was granted a hero’s welcome in the corridor of a state that overwhelmingly supported him in 2016.
Inside a Baptist church, the president autographed at least two Bibles for an adoring horde of volunteers, who were packed eight-deep around tables of recovery supplies. Thousands waved and cheered along the roadways, some paved and some not, with nary a protester in sight. Crowds greeted him in a wrecked neighborhood with MAGA (Make America Great Again) signs, Trump chants and a mannequin decorated with Trump merchandise outside a crushed home.
“I’d vote for him again,” said Ada Ingram, a local resident, in the annex of Providence Baptist Church serving as a shelter. She said proudly that Trump had signed Bibles belonging to her sister and a 12-year-old volunteer, who drew uproarious cheers when he posed for a picture with Trump. She called the president a “godsend.”
“He signed his Bible!” she exclaimed.
Trump’s visit to Republican-friendly Alabama came amid political storms back in Washington, where Trump’s fifth communications director, Bill Shine, quit after a turbulent eight-month tenure and where his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for tax fraud and other crimes.
Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn before leaving for Alabama and, later, his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump falsely asserted that the Manafort sentencing proved there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia in 2016, an area of inquiry that was not a part of the case.
“Very honored,” Trump said of the case’s outcome.
Trump also posted at least eight tweets attacking probes of him Friday amid his Alabama tornado visit, including an attack on former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, his first attorney general.
“Sessions didn’t have a clue!” he tweeted.
By Friday night, Trump was set to speak to donors inside Mar-a-Lago. The Republican National Committee is holding its spring meeting nearby, and the event gives the president’s club an opportunity to profit.
Storm recovery has proven uneven in his administration, which undercounted hurricane deaths in Puerto Rico and was widely criticized for a slow response to devastating storms there. He has complained about California and threatened to take away money for their wildfire recovery, angry over how the blazes were handled.
But Trump vowed on Twitter earlier this week that Alabama would receive “A Plus treatment” — and he was flanked by elected officials and adoring crowds as he landed.
“We couldn’t get here fast enough,” Trump said inside the Baptist church. “I wanted to come the day it happened.”
After a helicopter tour where he surveyed the state, the president was on the ground for about two hours. The 50-car presidential motorcade traversed two-lane back roads, where some houses appeared unscathed while others were pummeled, down a desolate dirt road to the home of home of Sheila Creech and Marshall Lynn Grimes, who were both killed. Wearing a presidential windbreaker and joined by first lady Melania Trump, he stood on a hill overlooking vast expanses of debris, shards of metal, concrete blocks, dented cars and houses whose contents had been vomited out.
President Trump was presented with Grimes’s dirty motorcycle jacket found in the cleanup. Grimes was well-regarded in the community and was part of a motorcycling club, said Michelle Key, the owner and editor of the Opelika Observer, a local weekly newspaper.
The family stood in a V around Trump and lavished praise on the president before asking to hug him. He embraced each member for several seconds, as aides pushed Cabinet secretaries out the way so the White House photographer could get an unobstructed view.
Nearby, at the church, the president spoke for two minutes before posing for pictures and signing hats, clothes and Bibles. The church has turned into the hub where volunteers collect supplies, such as water bottles and toilet tissue. As Trump lingered backstage, his Twitter account praised Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who announced her resignation plans this week.
He came out to raucous cheers from the crowd, with hundreds of phones simultaneously thrust in the air to capture footage of the president.
Key, the editor of the local paper, said much of the recovery had been led by local businesses and generous residents, but that federal officials had been on the ground helping people, too.
Outside, the president visited a row of crosses erected in honor of storm victims, sometimes closing his eyes. The small white crosses were surrounded by colorful stuffed animals and flowers. The first lady walked in step with him.
Key said Trump was overwhelmingly liked in the largely Republican area — but that there were some who wished he would stay away. They were nowhere to be seen.
“There were enough people in town that said if you come out in protest, we are going to block you,” Key said.