The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In South Carolina rally, Trump targets Sanford, McCain and TV comedians

President Trump speaks during a rally at Airport High School in West Columbia, S.C., on Monday for Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.
President Trump speaks during a rally at Airport High School in West Columbia, S.C., on Monday for Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. (Susan Walsh/AP)

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. — President Trump flew here Monday night ostensibly to urge South Carolina Republicans to vote for Gov. Henry McMaster in the Republican primary Tuesday, repaying a political favor to one of his earliest supporters.

The president also had a lot else on his mind.

In a discursive 58-minute rally at Airport High School here, he attacked Arnold Schwarzenegger for his TV ratings, revived criticism of Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) for his extramarital affair on what Trump inaccurately called the “Tallahassee Trail,” accused Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) of “grandstanding,” lamented the small high school gymnasium, misstated NATO spending, called home-state comedian Stephen Colbert a “lowlife,” recited his long and recently soured history with comedian Jimmy Fallon over a hair tussle, and repeatedly mocked some of his predecessors as being worse than him.

Late-night host Jimmy Fallon made a surprise visit at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School's graduation ceremony on June 3. (Video: Sid Fischer)

Trump said that Democrats don’t like police officers and that his tax cuts are the “greatest ever.” He exaggerated the U.S. trade deficit. He took credit for better ticket sales at the Olympics and seemingly even for more rockets going to space, describing SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk’s rockets to an apparently perplexed crowd.

“NASA is now open for business!” he said. “We’re going to create a space force!”

He accused Germany of ripping off the United States with automobiles, even though BMW is one of the state’s biggest employers.

He assured the crowd that his hair is real, bragged about the myriad TVs on Air Force One and complained that he has been treated unfairly, saying he deserved more praise for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — and most everything else. “Sometimes you have to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it,” he said.

Trump called public opinion polls “fake” — Gallup showed his approval down to 41 percent Monday — and told his assembled supporters that they were the “super-elite” because they were richer, smarter and more patriotic. He somehow dissected the American and Canadian national anthems, saying he prefers the American one.

And for about five minutes Monday night, he praised McMaster but couched it largely about himself. The president spent more time reminding the crowd that McMaster had supported him early in 2016 than recollecting the governor’s achievements.

Some of Trump’s aides warned against the trip, saying his time would be better spent in competitive states, campaigning against Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. McMaster is a favorite to win but not a surefire bet, according to analysts, consultants and some of Trump’s political aides — a notion that seemed to stick with the president.

“We have a lot of fake news back there,” said Trump, who often veers off topic at rallies for other candidates to instead tout his own record. “And you know, that if a horrible thing happened and we weren’t lucky enough to have Henry win, you know they’ll say . . . Donald Trump suffered a major, major defeat in the great state of South Carolina. It was a humiliating defeat for Donald Trump. So please get your asses out tomorrow and vote!”

Still, the president’s trip was the ultimate presidential political favor to McMaster.

The governor endorsed Trump in January 2016, long before establishment Republicans began to fall in line, and his support drew rebukes from fellow Republicans and even his chief of staff.

In return, the president, who is wildly popular in South Carolina, gave McMaster on his final night in a surprisingly tough primary contest wall-to-wall TV coverage, brought 2,500 or so people to a gym not even a mile from the airport and left McMaster’s opponent, John Warren, fielding questions about how he could be the outsider alternative if Trump was there to support McMaster.

Warren, a businessman and a newcomer to politics, has echoed much of Trump’s message and crowed about self-funding his campaign while running a competitive race.

But his final day was spent partly in a sweltering, faded, nearly empty Shoney’s restaurant near the airport here, where he lavished Trump with praise — even though the president would be arriving within hours to campaign against him — and took questions about Trump. He instead tried to talk about McMaster.

“He’s a loyal guy,” Warren said of Trump. “This is not a referendum on President Trump, who is doing a terrific job. It is a referendum on Henry McMaster.”

It was clear that the crowd was mainly there to see Trump. And on stage, McMaster said nothing about his own record, instead telling the crowd of his abiding love for the president. “We see the world exactly the same way,” McMaster said in a Washington Post interview.

When Trump said he was going to announce McMaster as the man the crowd was there to see, several shouted, “You!”

“In a lot of ways, McMaster is the anti-Trump. He is the typical Southern politician,” said Charles Bierbauer, a longtime dean at the University of South Carolina who recently moderated a debate between McMaster and Warren. “Warren is saying: I’m more like Trump than you are. I’m the outsider. I’m the swamp drainer, not you, Henry.”

On Monday night, McMaster stood in the rain at the airport waiting for Trump, whose plane circled for about an hour because of a storm, and screamed to the crowd that Trump was the “real force of nature.”

Trump’s stream-of-consciousness rally began with praise for the governor but soon veered off into his love of tariffs, a shout-out to trade adviser Peter Navarro, recollections of his campaign trips to Wisconsin and Michigan, and sharp criticism of the news media.

“Oh, by the way I have these stupid teleprompters. You don’t mind I haven’t used them all night, do you?” he said at one point.

He seemed most fixated on Fallon, who recently apologized for tussling Trump’s hair in a segment that was seen by some Trump critics as too friendly.

“The guy screws up my hair, going back and forth. He was so disappointed to find out it was real, he couldn’t believe. Well, that’s one of the great things I got,” Trump said.

He said the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the “worst decision in the history of our country” and sarcastically thanked Laura Bush for writing an opinion piece criticizing his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. He gave no ground on the policy and showed no concern for those children still separated from their families.

He said the media had accused first lady Melania Trump of leaving him, of moving to Virginia and of having a facelift after kidney surgery. It was unclear what outlets or stories he was talking about. The first lady, who had a procedure for a kidney condition at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., last month, has not discussed her health.

Trump also went after McCain, who has brain cancer. “He went no,” Trump said, reminding the crowd of the senator’s thumbs-down vote on health care.

In his attack on Sanford, who has repeatedly mocked the president even after Trump contributed to the congressman losing his primary, he got the facts wrong. When Sanford, then governor, had an affair with his Argentine mistress, he misled voters by saying he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail; Trump referred to it as the Tallahassee Trail.

Trump criticized military spending by NATO allies, attacked Canada’s milk tariffs and spent considerable time bragging about his record.

One of his only mentions of South Carolina was the expansion of a plant in Georgetown. As he wrapped up his speech, he seemed to remember that he needed to mention McMaster as he told the crowd that no U.S. president had been better than him.

“Your governor is a man named Henry McMaster,” he said at the end, to rousing applause. “I didn’t want to say that, Henry, I wanted to take the credit for myself.”