BALTIMORE — President Trump kicked off a policy retreat for House Republicans with an address that bashed his potential Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and the media, receiving a full embrace from GOP lawmakers converging on a city the president disparaged as a “rodent infested mess.”
He started his speech an hour later than planned, but in so doing managed to take the stage in Charm City at the exact minute that the 2020 Democratic presidential debate got underway.
Trump took shots at the candidates with dismissive nicknames.
The nearly 70-minute speech opened House Republicans’ three-day huddle here in Baltimore, a soul-searching exercise that comes as the GOP tries to chart a course back to the majority amid a raft of retirements from incumbents.
In Trump’s speech and in a GOP leadership news conference launching the event, Republicans introduced their new colleague, Rep.-elect Dan Bishop, the North Carolina state lawmaker who narrowly won a special election in a strong GOP district.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) praised Trump for helping pull Bishop across the finish line, papering over the GOP’s suburban problem and predicting that his party could retake the majority in 2020.
“House Democrats are pursuing the most radical, far-left program ever put forward in that historic chamber,” Trump said. “It’s the Democrats and it’s the media, who are fighting two battles. . . . They’re colluding and they’re obstructing.”
For the first half-hour, Trump’s speech slowly moved along at the pace of a State of the Union address. He ticked through what he considered GOP accomplishments — slashing thousands of rules, including the decision Thursday to scrap the Obama-era regulation on the wetlands and tributaries that feed into the nation’s largest rivers — and through tax cuts.
Trump became more animated later on, going off script to rant about Democrats wanting to take away plastic straws and what he called their outrageous demands for how to recycle lightbulbs.
He jabbed at his 2016 rival Clinton, saying she “didn’t like stairs, didn’t like airplanes, didn’t like a lot”— and would rest for weeks between stops.
At one point, Trump veered off script to take a shot at the Democrats onstage in Texas at that moment, calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” and Sanders “Crazy Bernie.”
“I hit Pocahontas way too early,” he said, referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “I thought she was gone. She’s emerged from the ashes and now it looks like she could beat Sleepy Joe, he’s falling asleep. He has no idea what the hell he’s doing or saying.”
Trump, who just weeks ago endorsed stronger background checks for gun owners, made no mention of gun control at all. The president has since rescinded that position.
“Republicans will always uphold fundamental rights to keep and bear arms,” he promised to applause.
Despite the Judiciary Committee’s vote earlier Thursday, Trump steered clear of impeachment until the one-hour mark of the speech, mocking their investigations briefly and then quickly moving on.
Before Trump’s arrival, McCarthy was seemingly giddy talking about House Democrats, whose messaging on impeachment has been scattershot and has created confusion in their ranks this week. In a rare sign of unity, McCarthy stood next to his old nemesis, House Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). The two men took turns assailing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“The Republicans have never been more united,” McCarthy said, suggesting that Trump is the most popular GOP president ever among Republican voters. “Not even Ronald Reagan had as much support within the party as President Trump!”
McCarthy even defended Trump’s recent tweets calling Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and “the Worst in the USA.” The minority leader tried to suggest that Trump’s remark about this black-majority city was merely an expression of concern for a struggling urban area.
“I think the president coming here symbolizes that, yes, he cares about Baltimore, he cares about the people that live in Baltimore and he does not accept that you have to stay in poverty,” McCarthy said.
Outside the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, where Republicans rented most of the rooms, protesters were having none of that. They picketed Trump’s presence in their city, registering their discontent with signs and a giant inflatable rat with a Trump-like head.
The top political goal of the retreat is to convince Republicans, who have suffered an unusually high number of retirements recently, that they can flip the House in November 2020. That’s why leaders flew Bishop in from North Carolina even before he was officially sworn into office.
McCarthy noted that, in the invalidated 2018 race, McCready only lost by 905 votes, a margin that Bishop grew to almost 4,000 votes — but, again, Republicans here gave most of the credit to Trump, who held a rally on the eve of the election.
“The president made a considerable difference in this race coming in, when you watch the turnout, you watch the movement in numbers, just a week away from what they ended up on Election Day,” McCarthy said.
Trump and Republicans have faced criticism for doing little to rein in spending, including during the two years they controlled all levers of government. On Thursday, the Treasury Department said the federal deficit topped $200 billion in August, bringing the total deficit for the year to more than $1 trillion.
McCarthy said that if Republicans retake the House majority, the “first thing we would do is make sure our debt is taken care of. This is continuing to grow.”
McCarthy was just as happy to talk about Democrats’ efforts to impeach the president. Foreshadowing a GOP election strategy, McCarthy accused Nadler of deciding to try to oust Trump well before he became chairman. He also taunted Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), suggesting the two top leaders have no control over an increasingly liberal caucus.
“Tell me how the Democrats are going to go back and ask for reelection on what they achieved,” McCarthy said. “All they achieved are investigations that have gone nowhere.”
Bishop offered a similar assessment in his first comments to Capitol Hill reporters: “What I heard more than anything else from voters as I passed them in the district is that what the social Democratic Party is articulating not only stuns them, it frightens them — not only on the subject of being consumed with the idea of destroying this president . . . but also their policy proposals, which are outlandish.”
Flanking McCarthy were Jordan, who battled with him on a regular basis when they held the majority, and Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary panel — Trump’s two top-line defenders against Democratic investigations.
Jordan poked fun at the majority’s inability to decide whether their probe of Trump constituted official impeachment proceedings. “Is it an impeachment? Is it not an impeachment? Is it an investigation? Is it an inquiry?” asked Jordan.
“They’ve got to come up with some way to go after this president because they’re bound and determined to do it — even though the country knows it’s not warranted, even though they know we shouldn’t do it, even though the country in every single poll says don’t do it,” he said.
Collins agreed, arguing that eight months of Democratic investigations have turned up “nothing except smoke and mirrors.”
“A dog and pony show [where] the dog and pony have left,” he said.