The 70-minute rally Saturday night was ostensibly to boost the candidacy of Ohio state Sen. Troy Balderson, who faces a special election for a House seat on Tuesday, but Trump placed himself center stage — physically and figuratively — as he touted what he said were his achievements and pressed his personal grudges.
He praised the enthusiastic if sweaty crowd in the sweltering gymnasium — “You are the elite,” he told them, adding that they were “smarter” and earned “bigger incomes” than the self-proclaimed elite in the swamp of Washington — before turning the topic back to himself.
“And I become president and they didn’t,” Trump said. “And it’s driving them crazy.”
The crowd was right there with Trump. They chanted the now all-but-obligatory “CNN sucks!” cry, and began calling for Trump to “Build the wall!” just five minutes into his remarks. When he briefly brought onstage Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — embattled amid accusations that he ignored allegations of sexual abuse while a wrestling coach at Ohio State University — the crowd cheered, “Speaker of the House! Speaker of the House!” (Jordan is running for the top House leadership position).
Trump also claimed credit for helping defeat Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) in his June primary, and was unable to resist a ding at the outgoing lawmaker. Alluding to — but bungling — the details of Sanford’s highly public affair in 2009, Trump joked: “He was supposed to be vacationing on the Tallahassee Trail. . . . Do they have the Tallahassee Trail in Argentina?”
In fact, when Sanford briefly went missing, on a romantic getaway with his mistress, his spokesman at the time falsely claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, when he was actually in Argentina.
Trump’s rally here for Balderson is part of the president’s renewed effort to lend his celebrity to a slate of Republican candidates in both the primaries and the November midterms. He recently told conservative friend and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity that in the final 60-day stretch before the midterms, he plans to travel “six or seven days a week” on behalf of vulnerable Republicans.
Balderson is locked in a close race with his Democratic rival, Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, in Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. The tight polls are all the more striking because the district, which Trump won by 11 points in 2016, has for decades swung solidly Republican.
Trump belittled Balderson’s opponent as “a low-level person that did nothing.”
“Nancy Pelosi controls Danny O’Connor, whoever the hell that is,” he said.
As he has in previous rallies for candidates, Trump called Balderson onstage to make brief remarks, praising him as “really tough” and “really smart,” and urging the crowd to vote for him. “He’s never going to let you down,” Trump said.
Balderson, who spoke for only four minutes, returned the praise and — taking a page from Trump’s playbook — tried to give O’Connor a disparaging nickname, calling him “Dishonest Danny.”
“Mr. President, we don’t want to go back,” Balderson said. “I’m not tired of winning.”
In a statement after the rally, O’Connor’s campaign dismissed the rally as a distraction.
“Danny spent all day launching massive volunteer canvasses and speaking to voters across the district about protecting Medicare and Social Security and ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care,” O’Connor campaign manager Annie Ellison said. “That’s what our campaign is about, not petty name-calling and outright lies.”
Trump’s Ohio performance came less than 24 hours after Trump excoriated the intelligence of basketball star LeBron James, the state’s native son and former Cleveland Cavaliers forward, in a late-night tweet Friday. Trump apparently spent part of his vacation watching CNN’s re-airing of James’s Monday interview with Don Lemon, in which James said the president is using sports to divide the nation.
“LeBron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon,” Trump wrote. “He made LeBron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
“I like Mike!” Trump added, presumably referring to Michael Jordan, the former Chicago Bulls star.
That James recently opened a public school for at-risk youth in Akron did not seem to dissuade Trump for going after the Ohio luminary. The president has frequently used attacks on athletes, particularly African American ones, as a preferred foil, and his rant against James came after he attacked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is also black, as “low IQ” at a rally in Pennsylvania on Thursday night.
On Saturday, as well, Trump returned to Waters, describing her as “a real beauty” and a “seriously low IQ person.”
Through a spokeswoman, first lady Melania Trump issued a tacit rebuke of her husband, releasing a statement praising James — including saying she would be open to visiting his school in Akron. “It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation and just as she always has, the first lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” first lady spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
Once in James’s home state, however, the president steered clear of the controversy, making no mention of his burgeoning feud with the basketball star.
On Saturday, before taking a break from his 11-day working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to fly to Ohio, Trump also used social media to offer two endorsements of Balderson. The Republican candidate, Trump wrote on Twitter, “is strong on Crime, the Border & loves our Military, Vets & 2nd Amendment.” He urged his supporters to vote for him on Tuesday, claiming that O’Conner would be a “puppet of Nancy Pelosi,” the House Democratic leader, and support higher taxes.
The event is Trump’s 23rd rally in Ohio, and his fifth rally in the Columbus area, since he launched his presidential bid in 2015, the campaign said.
Privately, Trump spent much of the week under siege. He is worried about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s expanding Russia probe, and watched cable news commentary of the trial of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday described the president as “rightfully frustrated” by what he views as the almost universally negative media coverage of his presidency.
At one point, Trump brought up the Russian investigation and blasted it as “a Democrat-inspired witch hunt!” He did, however, say the United States needed to stop “everybody” from interfering in elections, indicating without evidence that several countries were involved.
The president briefly waded into the topic of Russia, including the claims by his own intelligence agencies that Russia not only interfered in the 2016 presidential elections but continues to interfere in upcoming elections. But he again left open the possibility that Russia was not the only country to blame, hinting that several countries were actively involved.
“We’ve got to stop it. We’ve got to stop everybody from attacking us, but there are a lot. Russia’s there. China’s there,” Trump said, then paused for dramatic effect and lowered his voice. “Hey, we’re doing well with North Korea — but they’re probably there. We’ve got to stop everybody.”
“And by the way, with China not doing so well, it’s only gotten worse, I guarantee you,” Trump said. “If there’s any meddling or if there’s any problems, I guarantee you it’s going to happen really big now. Because we are taking our wealth back. We’re taking our jobs back.”
But in general, the rallies — in large arenas filled with cheering devotees — have buoyed Trump’s mood, offering him a platform to both air his grievances and bask in the adulation of his core supporters.
In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Thursday evening, Trump repeatedly returned to slamming the media, which he dubbed the “fake, fake, disgusting news” at the hands of “horrible, horrendous people.” Yet he also imbued his rants and riffs with an entertainer’s flair, and the crowd — even as they booed and jeered — seemed to be playing their cameo role in the Trump show, enjoying themselves rather than visibly angry.
The raucous Ohio crowd similarly condemned the media and cheered along with Trump, but also did not seem particularly vitriolic.
At one point, Trump nodded to the lack of air conditioning in the room, which left many of the attendees drenched in sweat and fanning themselves with makeshift fans fashioned from Trump signs.
“Even though it’s 110 degrees in this crazy room, if you can take it, I can take it,” Trump said. “This room was not designed quite for this crowd, and you people are hot.”