EVANSVILLE, Ind. — President Trump on Thursday sharpened his attacks on American social media companies, calling out Google, Facebook and Twitter by name and declaring to an Indiana crowd, “We will not let large corporations silence conservative voices.”
At a rally for Republican Senate nominee Mike Braun, Trump pledged that his administration will protect the “free speech rights of all Americans” and accused the three tech giants of favoring liberal voices over conservative ones.
“I’ve made it clear that we as a country cannot tolerate political censorship, blacklisting and rigged search results,” Trump told the crowd at the Ford Center.
The broadside came two days after Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said the administration would explore regulating Google in response to the president’s allegation that the search giant manipulates its search results, a move that drew rebukes from free-speech advocates as well as members of both parties.
Some conservative media outlets have recently stepped up their accusations that Google’s search results are biased, and the topic was recently featured by Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs on his show.
Google has denied the allegations and maintains that its search results are free from political bias. In a statement earlier this week, a Google spokesman said that “search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”
Trump was visiting the state to campaign on behalf of Braun, who is aiming to unseat Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in one of this fall’s most closely watched races.
On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted his support for Braun, whom he called “a very successful businessman.” At the rally, Trump called Braun onstage and told the crowd that “a vote for Mike Braun is a vote to — did you ever hear this before? — Make America Great Again.”
Braun returned the favor, declaring that no one on the 2016 Republican debate stage could have beaten Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton other than Trump.
“This man makes promises and keeps them,” Braun said of Trump, as the crowd roared back at his mention of Clinton by chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Inside the at-capacity stadium, flanked by signs reading “Promises Made” and “Promises Kept” on either side of the podium, Trump also attacked Democrats as weak on immigration policy and touched on his favorite campaign-trail topic of the “fake news,” which he said consists of “85 percent” of the media — up from his estimate of 80 percent last week.
“When you get good ratings, you can say anything,” Trump said, singling out NBC in particular, which he said is “probably worse than CNN.”
He noted Republicans’ razor-thin Senate majority and told the crowd that this November, “You aren’t just voting for a candidate, you’re voting for which party controls Congress.”
“If somebody has a cold, we no longer have the majority. We need Republicans in Congress,” Trump said.
The visit to Indiana came during a week of upheaval for Trump and amid mounting legal woes. On Wednesday, Trump announced that Donald McGahn will step down as White House counsel this fall, throwing the president’s legal team into further turmoil. With a Democratic takeover of the House this November a real possibility, some in Trump’s inner circle are worried that the president is unprepared for what could be an onslaught of congressional investigations, including potential impeachment proceedings.
Trump has also recently floated the idea of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and has dramatically stepped up his attacks on him for recusing himself from the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
At Thursday’s rally, where he spoke for more than an hour, Trump renewed his attacks on the Justice Department and FBI, telling the crowd that they “have to start doing their job and doing it right and doing it now, because people are angry.”
“At some point, if it doesn’t straighten out, I will get involved, and I’ll get in there if I have to,” Trump said. “Disgraceful.”
Both Trump and Braun took aim at Donnelly, who the president said “is not going to vote for us on anything.”
In a nod to Trump’s popularity in the state, Donnelly’s campaign responded in a statement that the Indiana Democrat “voted with President Trump 62% of the time.”
“We’re always happy to have President Trump in Indiana, but Hoosiers still want a senator who always puts them first before any politician or political party,” Donnelly said. Trump won Indiana by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.
Trump spent several minutes at the rally praising former Indiana men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight and also made a mention of Tiger Woods, whom he hailed on Twitter earlier this week for answering a reporter’s question about Trump by calling for respect for the office of the president.
“Tiger! Did you see the fake news tried to fake out Tiger? They didn’t do too well,” Trump said. “Tiger’s sharp.”
One name Trump didn’t mention during the rally was that of John McCain, the late senator from Arizona and decorated Vietnam War POW with whom he frequently clashed on foreign policy, immigration and other issues. McCain died of brain cancer Saturday at age 81.
Trump had prompted criticism with an initial tweet after McCain’s death in which he made no mention of the senator’s service in the military or on Capitol Hill, rejecting the advice of top aides who advocated releasing an official statement that gave McCain plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a “hero.”
The president was upbraided further by lawmakers of both parties as well as the American Legion after the flag atop the White House was returned to full-staff early Monday. Hours later, Trump abruptly changed course, begrudgingly issuing a proclamation honoring McCain and calling for flags to be flown at half-staff until the senator’s interment.
Asked by Bloomberg News on Thursday whether he thought he made a mistake in his initial response to McCain’s death, Trump said, “No, I don’t think I did at all.”
He added that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was “having a nervous breakdown” over his response.
Despite Trump’s legal woes this week, rallygoers’ enthusiasm for the president remained undiminished.
“People who are seeing him for the first time tonight will leave here so excited,” said Randal Thom, an independent dog breeder who drove nearly 900 miles from Lakefield, Minn. “He just has such a presence.”
Thom, 58, was waving an American flag with Trump’s face on it that he said he had brought to the past 12 rallies he had attended.
Jane Stinson, of Newburgh, Ind., described herself as an ardent Trump supporter and recent subscriber to the QAnon conspiracy theory. She supported McCain during his presidential run in 2008 but said she was disappointed with the Arizona Republican in recent years.
“He sold out the American people on health care,” she said, visibly upset as she remembered McCain’s decisive vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act. “He went against everything I stand for.”
She described Trump as a “breath of fresh air” whom she praised for improving the economy, tightening borders and supporting Christians.
Sonmez and Gearan reported from Washington. Tony Romm contributed to this report.