President Donald Trump defended his decision to backtrack on the practice of separating undocumented immigrant families on the US-Mexico border at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday.
The President, however, devoted only a small portion of his speech to the issue of immigration and his border policy, even though it has dominated the conversation in Washington for a week and roiled the Republican Party. During the hour-long event, Trump also praised North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and lashed out against Democrats and Republican Sen. John McCain.
Trump told a fired-up audience that the executive order he signed hours earlier would not weaken his border strategy and again pledged, as he did during the 2016 election, to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
“Today, I signed an executive order,” he said. “We’re going to keep families together, but the border is going to be just as tough as it’s been.”
He added: “The Democrats want open borders — let everybody pour in, we don’t care. Let them pour in from the Middle East, we don’t care, we’re not going.”
Though his speech in Duluth is 1,500 miles from the facilities where much of the family separations have been happening, Trump had been expected to use the issue of immigration to rally his loyal base, with top aides seeing it as a way to fire up the voters who backed him two years ago.
The President also used hyperbolic language in claiming that his administration had “liberated towns” in Long Island, New York that were plagued by members of the MS-13 gang.
The event also brought out vintage Trump, with the President giving a free-wheeling speech that at times veered into a venting session about people who have slighted him.
“The elite, the elite. Why are they elite,” he said incredulously to cheers. “I have a much better apartment than they do. I am smarter than they are. I am richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t.”
During a riff on health care, Trump returned to an oft-attacked enemy: McCain.
“We had a gentlemen way into the morning hours, go thumbs down,” Trump said, describing how McCain voted against the health care repeal effort although not naming him. “He went thumbs down.”
The comment was not well received by some in the audience, with one woman audibly yelling, “He’s a war hero! He’s a war hero!”
Trump also used the event to rekindle focus on his historic summit with Kim earlier this month, a subject that has been knocked out of the news by a constant focus on immigration.
Trump praised Kim at the rally, telling supporters that the leader will “turn that country into a great, successful country.”
“It was a great meeting,” Trump said of his historic meeting with Kim in Singapore earlier this month. “Chairman Kim… will turn that country into a great, successful country. Let me tell you this, a year and a half ago no one thought that was possible.”
Trump also said North Korea had sent back the remains of 200 US soldiers killed in the Korean War. It’s unclear if the remains have actually been returned or will be returned. CNN, citing four administration officials, reported Tuesday that the administration was expecting North Korea to return the remains, which are believed to be those of US servicemembers, in the coming days.
Trump has sought to cast his meeting with Kim as a turning point in North Korean relations, hoping that the boost on the international stage will help Republicans running in the midterms elections this year.
Trump’s trip to Duluth comes at a time where Minnesota is at the center Republican plans in 2018 and beyond.
Duluth and the surrounding area, traditionally a working class Democratic stronghold in the state, was wooed by Trump in 2016, helping him come within 2 percentage points of becoming the first Republican since Richard Nixon to win Minnesota in a presidential election.
And now the state is home to some of the most closely watched House races in the country, two Senate races and a competitive governor’s contest, making Minnesota a top Republican target this year.
“My friends, we are the last Midwestern state still dominated by Democrats whose sole purpose is to resist, block and obstruct President Trump’s agenda,” Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan told rally-goers. “Our neighbors in Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota have all turned red and now it’s our turn. Let’s show the world that there is no blue wave coming in Minnesota.”
Trump’s trip to Duluth was an attempt to do just that.
Republicans in the White House and across Washington hope that frequent visits to states like Minnesota by the President can help build on the gains he made in 2016. In the next eight days, for example, Trump will make politics-focused trips to Nevada, South Carolina, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
“I think the President expects and wants to be as involved or more so than his predecessors,” White House political director Bill Stepien told CNN. “I think the next days of travel show that.”
But as much as midterm politics is on Trump’s mind, his own political future will also be front of mind for the President, whose campaign has already said they see Minnesota as their best opportunity to flip a blue state red during the 2020 election.
With Trump or against him?
The state is also central to the ongoing debate over whether some Republicans candidates should stand with the President or try to create distance with him. Pete Stauber, the Republican candidate running to flip Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District from blue to red in November, rallied with Trump on Wednesday.
“Mr. President, these people support you,” Stauber said at the rally. “And Mr. President, these are the same people who are gong to send me to Washington so together we can unleash the economic engine in northeast Minnesota.”
The same goes for Jim Hagedorn, a Republican candidate from southern Minnesota who drove four hours to rally with Trump on Wednesday night and told CNN he is running for Congress to be a conservative member who stands with the President.
“We are not going to let out of touch, metro-area liberal elites drown out your voices,” Karen Housley, a Republican member of the Minnesota Senate who is running in a GOP primary to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, told the audience on Wednesday.
But other candidates, like Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty, have been more muted about Trump’s presence. Pawlenty, who called Trump “unfit” and “unhinged” during the 2016 election, welcomed Trump over Twitter to Minnesota but said that his lieutenant governor running mate would attend the rally, not him.
And during the section of Trump’s speech where he name checks certain Republican candidates, Trump repaid Pawlenty’s absence by not mentioning him.
Carnahan said ahead of the rally that any Republican running away from Trump in the state is making a mistake.
“I think the biggest mistake any candidate can make at this juncture,” she said, “is to turn against or away from the President.”