“I love this place. Hello, Pittsburgh! Hello, Pittsburgh!” Trump said, standing on a stage decorated with only his name. “You know what? Do me a favor — get out on Tuesday, vote for Rick Saccone. And we can leave right now.”
The president playfully walked away, as the crowd begged him to come back.
For the next 25 minutes, the president didn’t again mention Saccone, a Republican candidate in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District who is running for a seat vacated by a married Republican who resigned after he had asked a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair to get an abortion. The special election — set for Tuesday — was supposed to be an easy win for a Republican, given that Trump won the area by 20 points, but polling shows a tight race between Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor whom Trump dubbed “Lamb the Sham.”
“The people of Pittsburgh cannot be conned by this guy Lamb. You just can’t do it,” Trump said. “He can say: ‘I love President Trump. I agree with everything he says.’ You know what? I don’t want to meet him, because anyone who says that, I might like him.”
Then Trump waited until the last five minutes of his 75-minute speech to give the audience concrete reasons they should vote for Saccone. His pitch boiled down to this: “We need him. We need Republicans. We need the votes.”
Trump has long portrayed himself as a visionary who can achieve things no one else is capable of doing. But by branding himself as one of a kind, Trump has made it difficult to persuade his followers to believe in anyone but himself. So far, the president’s picks in recent special House elections have eked out victories, but by surprisingly slim margins in reliably Republican districts. His pick for the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, Roy Moore, was defeated.
This was Trump’s first campaign rally in more than three months, and he had a lot of other things on his mind.
And he wanted to provide his version of what happened Thursday when he met with South Korean representatives who delivered an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But it was a story he had to interrupt so he could take credit for ticket sales for the Winter Olympics last month (“Little hard to sell tickets when you think you’re going to be nuked,” Trump quipped as the crowd laughed); praise North Korea for participating in the Olympic Games; curse out the host of NBC News’s “Meet the Press”; imitate former president Bill Clinton; comment on how handsome he was when he was younger; call CNN “fake as hell”; brag about the ratings of the reality show he once hosted (“Arnold Schwarzenegger failed when he did ‘The Apprentice,’ and he’s a movie star,” Trump said); criticize President George W. Bush for starting a war in the Middle East; and complain that the media isn’t giving him enough credit for this apparent breakthrough with North Korea.
“A certain anchor, female, said: ‘This is really something. He would go down as a truly great president if this happened,’ ” Trump said, as someone in the crowd shouted out: “You already are!”
Trump called out the news media for reporting so very seriously on his joke about wanting to follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s example and try to make himself president for life. He claimed that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) scares away male voters and again called her “Pocahontas” to mock her claims of Native American heritage. He promised to expose Oprah Winfrey’s weaknesses if she decides to run for office. He smirked as the crowd repeatedly booed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and he said that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is a “very low-IQ individual.” He then claimed to have won 52 percent of votes from women, although exit polls showed that he won 52 percent of votes from white women, not all women.
He compared his negotiating skills to those of a mobster, threatened to tax imported Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, and criticized President Ronald Reagan for being “not great on the trade.” And he complained that he gets “no credit” for the election of Republican Rep. Karen Handel of Georgia, although he did not host a campaign rally for her.
Trump promised to continue to crack down on MS-13 gang members who commit murder with knives, commending police on Long Island for having grabbed suspected gangsters “by the neck, and they threw ’em into the paddy wagon.” Soon the crowd chanted: “Build that wall! Build that wall!” Trump suggested a “zero-tolerance” drug-control strategy often used in China and Singapore: executing those who sell drugs that kill people.
And he lashed out at a columnist who questioned why he gives rambling speeches like this one, then acted like a “presidential” president who was stiffly robotic as he endorsed a candidate and thanked members of the military for their service.
The crowd loved the president’s stand-up routine. They laughed at his jokes and they applauded every idea he shared, sometimes adding whistles or exclamations of “We love you!” The crowd repeatedly booed the media and cheered Trump’s glowing descriptions of how things work in China and Singapore. They filmed videos, snapped selfies and held their children up to get a glimpse of the 45th president of the United States.
Eventually, after speaking for more than 70 minutes, Trump invited Saccone onto the stage to say a few words, and the candidate carefully kept the focus on the president: “Do we love our president here in western Pennsylvania? . . . If President Trump’s in your corner, how can you lose?”
For more than an hour before the rally, Saccone and his wife greeted rallygoers as they arrived at the hangar — but hundreds of people walked past without noticing or recognizing him as they searched for a spot with a clear view of the stage.
The crowd was heavy with Trump supporters who said they don’t live in the 18th Congressional District. The parking lot included many license plates from nearby Ohio and Maryland.
Pete Robinson, a 68-year-old retiree who once worked in a coal-fired power plant and lives outside of the district in Fayette County, praised Saccone for his knowledge of North Korea and told him, “We’re praying for you.”
Frank Pencheck — a 27-year-old who works for a local HVAC company and lives north of Pittsburgh, outside the district — asked Saccone what he would do first in Washington and said he was surprised that the candidate didn’t have an answer ready to go.
“I just thought he should have an answer for that,” Pencheck said.
Many people who do live in the area said they plan to vote for Saccone on Tuesday, although a diesel mechanic said he’s unsure that he will because he would have to leave work to do so. As a Washington Post reporter pressed him on his thinking, the interview was interrupted by a young man wearing a T-shirt showing a sketch of Trump dressed as a gangster who began recording the interaction while shouting out questions about Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman: “You have heard of John Podesta, right? . . . What is your favorite thing about John Podesta?”
This was not a crowd that trusts major news outlets, and there were repeated chants of “CNN sucks!” After the rally, an elderly man wearing a trucker-style campaign hat walked back and forth in front of reporters filing their stories or doing live stand-ups and said in a scolding tone: “Guys, just tell the truth. Don’t lie. Don’t lie.”
Outside the rally, a vendor not affiliated with the campaign sold a T-shirt featuring a stick figure with Trump’s famous swoop of hair attacking the words “fake news” in a sexual way. Inside, Trump supporters lined up to do interviews with the Right Side Broadcasting Network, an online channel that since 2015 has promoted the president by streaming his rallies online. A man in the audience, dressed in a leather coat, quietly sold black baseball caps promoting Infowars, the conspiracy theorist website and media platform owned by Alex Jones.
“I love your hat!” one woman proclaimed. “I love Alex Jones. He breaks so much news.”
Many in the crowd said they do believe some of the polling being reported by major media companies, and they’re worried about Democrats picking up more seats in the House. Mike Barkley, a 53-year-old truck driver who lives about 60 miles away in Grove City, said that he has been closely watching the race and called Saccone’s campaign with some advice: Stop running ads that attack Lamb and focus just on pitching Saccone to Pennsylvanians. He said that he was told that most ads are paid for by outside groups that the campaign has no control over.
Barkley is worried that Saccone will lose because he expects Lamb will receive thousands of fraudulent votes, an idea that the president spread ahead of his own election. He pointed to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by conservative activists who claim that at least 100,000 of the 8.4 million Pennsylvanians registered to vote are not citizens. State officials have said that there’s no evidence to back up the claim. Barkley is convinced that millions of noncitizens across the country actively vote in elections and were the reason that Clinton won the popular vote in 2016.
“I think that’s going to be a problem in this election,” he said. “Democrats done load them onto buses and take them to the polls.”
Despite these worries, the president reminded the crowd that the media also predicted that he would lose the election, and now he’s president.
Trump plans to campaign for as many fellow Republicans as he can ahead of the midterm elections this fall — allowing him to escape the West Wing and talk without being interrupted for as long as he wants, while many cable news stations carry his remarks live. He was clearly happy to be back on the stage Saturday night, and he said he was eager to campaign again in 2020 — even though he never stopped campaigning after the 2016 election.
This rally was the president’s first since naming a campaign manager, and there was a noticeable change: The hangar doors were kept closed, and Trump did not use Air Force One as a prop in the background. A campaign representative said now that Trump is taking concrete steps toward running for reelection, there were legal concerns about using the taxpayer-funded plane at campaign events.
Trump let the group in on a secret: “Our new slogan . . . is going to be: ‘Keep America Great,’ exclamation mark. ‘Keep America Great!’”
But Trump seemed to acknowledge that special elections and the midterms this fall also reflect on him.
“The world is watching . . . They’re all watching because I won this district like by 22 points,” Trump said, slightly overstating the margin. “That’s a lot. . . . Look at all of those red hats, Rick. Look! Look at all those hats. That’s a lot of hats.”
Dozens of the president’s supporters pulled off their signature red campaign hats and waved them in the air in his honor.