President Trump began his political rally in Wisconsin on Saturday night with a full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism and hate crimes hours after a fatal shooting at a synagogue in San Diego.
The remarks came after Trump in recent days defended past comments that there were “very fine people” who marched with self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate,” Trump told the crowd in Green Bay. “It must be defeated. We will all get to the bottom of it.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of a lot of things happening in this country,” he added.
Trump’s response after Charlottesville resurfaced this week when former vice president Joe Biden referenced it in a video launching his presidential campaign. Asked about those comments on Mark Levin’s conservative talk radio show, Trump said, “Now there were a lot of good people in that group” who only came to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The interview was taped Thursday and aired Friday night.
Trump, who was in his element before a crowd of red-hat-wearing fans, spoke for more than 90 minutes, testing his reelection pitch in a state he narrowly won in 2016, securing him the presidency.
In a relatively tame speech that focused largely on the strength of the economy, Trump still hit all the key points that energize his base from mentioning Hillary Clinton to spur “lock her up” chants and the late senator John McCain’s health-care vote to elicit boos.
Trump scheduled the rally in the critical battleground state to counter the White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington, which he has declined to attend since becoming president.
“By the way, Saturday night, is there any place that’s more fun than a Trump rally?” he said. “Can you imagine Sleepy Joe, Crazy Bernie? . . . I think Pocahontas, she’s finished . . . Can you imagine any of those people up here doing what I’m doing?”
He mentioned White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, which led to an impromptu chant of “Sarah, Sarah” and some of the loudest applause of the night. He invited her to join him onstage.
“Last year, this night, I was at a slightly different event. Not quite the best welcome,” Sanders said, referencing the jokes made at her expense at the last correspondents’ dinner. “So this is an amazing honor.”
In a riff about immigration, Trump took credit for a plan to bus immigrants who cross the border illegally to sanctuary cities, first reported by The Washington Post. “I’m proud to tell you that was actually my sick idea,” he said.
He also used the word “sick” to describe people who worry that Trump won’t leave the White House at the end of his term, be it in 2021 or 2025.
“I promise at the end of six years, I‘ll be glad to — you’re going to be left with the strongest country you’ve ever had, I promise you,” he said.
In this northeastern Wisconsin city of about 105,000 people — which boasts a significant swath of Catholic, white, blue-collar voters that make up a large part of Trump’s coalition — the president reiterated promises he made in 2016 to build a wall along the southern border, replace the Affordable Care Act and negotiate better trade deals.
Trump’s heavy focus on the economy in this rally speech is what many Republicans wished he had done in the 2018 midterms instead of using the final weeks before the elections falsely claiming imminent danger from migrant caravans.
Though the speech was short on politics, being in Wisconsin was not. To win another four years in the White House, Trump needs states such as Wisconsin that flipped for him in 2016.
Recent statewide elections in Wisconsin have been fought on a razor’s edge, with Trump winning the state over Clinton by about 23,000 votes in 2016, and Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for governor, defeating incumbent Gov. Scott Walker (R) by just under 30,000 votes in November.
Yet more recently, state Republicans got a boost when the conservative candidate in this month’s nonpartisan Supreme Court race, Brian Hagedorn, narrowly won a spot on the state’s highest court by about 6,000 votes.
After Clinton famously didn’t visit Wisconsin during the general election campaign, a handful of Democratic presidential candidates have already made their way to the state, including former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.), and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In other states, “the pendulum swing goes back and forth,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki. “In Wisconsin, the pendulum is stuck. We are a dead-even state.”
Like most battleground states, Trump’s potential weakness is in the suburbs, echoing the revolt of suburban voters nationwide that helped deliver control of the House to Democrats in fall’s midterms.
But Trump will also be able to take advantage of a sophisticated party apparatus in Wisconsin, which boasts a deep field operation and massive voter data files, as well as a capability to drive up turnout among Republican voters in hotly contested races.
Trump is also coming under criticism from Democrats in the state over his trade policy, as U.S. trading partners level tariffs on Wisconsin products such as dairy products and Harley-Davidson motorcycles in retaliation for the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.
“He’s not doing well here,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents the state’s liberal enclave of Madison. “Right now, we’re feeling his not having a coherent trade policy in a very negative way.”
Republicans in the state, as well as GOP officials hailing from other agrarian states, say, while farmers are being hit by tariff war, they still are largely giving Trump the benefit of the doubt and even praised the president for the perception that he’s getting tough with China when it comes to trade.
But both parties are pointing to potential warning signs for Trump in the suburbs.
White men “may be the last ones to buck him in the suburbs,” said Wisconsin-based Democratic consultant Tom Russell. “But you’re seeing a lot of Republican-leaning women, a lot of Republicans with higher education levels leaving Trump.”
“In Wisconsin, it was sort of a minor leakage rather than a flood” in terms of suburban voters swinging away from Republicans, said Brian Reisinger, a Republican strategist in the state who in 2016 worked on the reelection campaign for Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “But it’s there, and it’s a soft spot.”
Colby Itkowitz and Seung Min Kim reported from Washington. Allyson Chiu reported from Green Bay, Wis.