LEBANON, Ohio — President Trump praised the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee while asking African American voters to “honor us” by voting Republican at an Ohio rally that featured an unexpected and provocative monologue on America’s Civil War history.

Addressing an open-air rally of around 4,000 supporters, Trump appeared buoyant as he declared that Lee was a “true great fighter” and “great general.” He also said President Abraham Lincoln once had a “phobia” of the Southern general, whose support of slavery has made his legacy a heavily contested and divisive issue.

The comments came during an anecdote about Ohio-born President Ulysses S. Grant’s alleged drinking problems. “So Robert E. Lee was a great general. And Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia. He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle.”

“And Abraham Lincoln came home, he said, ‘I can’t beat Robert E. Lee,’ ” Trump said. “They said to Lincoln, ‘You can’t use him anymore, he’s an alcoholic.’ And Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic, frankly, give me six or seven more just like him.’ He started to win.”

Minutes earlier, Trump had hailed African American unemployment numbers and asked black voters to “honor us” by voting Republican in November. “Get away from the Democrats,” he told them. “Think of it: We have the best numbers in history. . . . I think we’re going to get the African American vote, and it’s true.” He also celebrated hip-hop artist Kanye West’s visit to the Oval Office on Thursday, adding: “What he did was pretty amazing.”

Trump’s speech threatened to reignite a highly divisive debate over America’s racial history with just weeks to go until the midterms. Trump has previously defended statues commemorating Confederate leaders, tweeting last year: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Critics say such statues glorify historical advocates of slavery.

During a rally in Lebanon, Ohio, President Trump asked African American voters to "honor us with their support." (The Washington Post)

Grant was not the only Ohio-native whom Trump deployed as a foil in his interventions on sensitive cultural issues. He also referenced astronaut Neil Armstrong, telling crowds: “He’s the man that planted the flag on the face of the moon. . . . There was no kneeling, there was no nothing, there was no games, boom,” in a reference to NFL athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem.

Trump was in Lebanon to boost the campaign of Rep. Steve Chabot, the incumbent whose 1st Congressional District encompasses the county and who had distanced himself from the president ahead of the event. “We didn’t ask him to come. . . . He wasn’t my first choice or my second or my third,” he told one newspaper, apparently fearful Trump’s rhetoric could prove costly in the competitive race. On the night, however, Chabot appeared content to revel in the president’s support. “God bless the president. And, I never thought I’d say this, but God bless Kanye West,” he said.

Standing before a supersize American flag suspended between two diggers, the president listed his achievements while redoubling his attacks on his traditional opponents in a rally that exceeded an hour. He described Democrats as “the party of the mob,” and said of the media: “We’ve learned how to live with them. We don’t like it, but we’ve learned.”

Supporters gleefully chanted, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and, “Ka-va-naugh! Ka-va-naugh!” during the event, while booing in reference to the media and Democratic politicians, whom Trump accused of trying to stymie the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

At the outset of his speech, Trump celebrated the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest in Turkey, telling supporters at the rally: “He went through a lot, but he’s on his way back” — but sidestepping the suspected killing of a Saudi journalist amid growing pressure on the White House to address the diplomatic crisis.

“I’m really proud to report that earlier today we secured the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey,” he declared to rapturous applause in Ohio as a plane transporting the evangelical leader from Istanbul landed in Germany. “I think he’s going to be in great shape. . . . We bring a lot of people back, and that’s good.”

He earlier told reporters in Cincinnati that there had been “no deal” to secure the pastor’s release. The president had been less vocal on the suspected murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, although he said he would raise it with his Saudi counterpart King Salman. “I will be calling at some point,” he added, before pivoting to the threat posed by Iran.

Trump also praised Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a GOP gubernatorial candidate who is seeking to replace the term-bound Trump-critic Gov. John Kasich. He faces Democrat Richard Cordray, an Obama administration official who served as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “He was hurting people and I think he enjoyed it,” said Trump of Cordray’s time in office. “No really, I think he enjoyed it.”

The rally took place in Warren County, a GOP fortress where Trump more than doubled Hillary Clinton’s tally in the 2016 election and that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in over half a century.

It marked Trump’s fifth visit as candidate or president to greater Cincinnati, a city that has a spot in Trump lore as the place where he spent high school summers working for his father’s business. “The Art of the Deal” includes a chapter, “The Cincinnati Kid,” in which Trump claims credit for spotting investment opportunities in the city. “I love it,” he later said. “I worked here, I was was here, I lived here.”