Trump told his supporters in Tupelo that a vote for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in Tuesday's would help his administration. Her status has fallen after a series of controversial statements, and the race took a disquieting turn Monday with the discovery of at least two nooses and five handmade signs outside the State Capitol.
TUPELO, Miss. — President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail in Mississippi on Monday to offer an unabashed endorsement of a Republican candidate under fire for comments that critics said embraced the state’s segregationist history.
In the first of two public appearances, Trump told his supporters in Tupelo that a vote for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the runoff election Tuesday would help his administration, underscoring her support for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and his policies.
“Cindy is so important, so respected,” Trump said after taking the stage in Tupelo.
And, he noted, her election would further tip the Senate in Republicans’ favor. “If we win tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll be at 53-47.”
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His presence in Mississippi was intended to boost Hyde-Smith, who has struggled to unite her party and move beyond a series of controversial statements, including one in which she said if a particular supporter invited her “to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The comments have prompted a firestorm in a state steeped in an ugly history of racial violence. Hyde-Smith and her Democratic opponent, Mike Espy, a former U.S. representative and the first African-American elected to Congress in Mississippi since Reconstruction, have sparred over what she meant. And major corporate donors, including Ernst & Young, Google, Major League Baseball and Walmart, have requested refunds of their contributions to Hyde-Smith, despite her assertions that her comments reflected “no ill will.”
In the hours before Trump arrived, the race took a disquieting turn with the daybreak discovery of at least two nooses and five handmade signs outside the State Capitol. “We’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed,” one of the signs read.
But Trump brushed off the controversy over Hyde-Smith’s remarks.
“Really it was something that was sad and it was a little flip,” the president told reporters after a round table on criminal justice legislation in Gulfport. “She called me, she said, ‘I said something that I meant exactly very different,’ and I heard an apology loud and clear.”
By some Republican estimations, Trump’s appearances were a signal of how much Hyde-Smith’s standing has eroded in recent weeks and a reminder of just how far Trump will go to secure the largest possible Republican conference in Congress, particularly in the face of a Democratic House majority come January.
But to his supporters gathered at the Tupelo airport and a Biloxi arena, Trump made little mention of the controversy that has engulfed Hyde-Smith’s campaign. After an entrance under falling fake snow in Biloxi, the president boasted of the strength of his movement and his administration — reminding the crowd of the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA (“like the song ‘Y.M.C.A.’”). And ultimately he focused, as he had done in the days before the midterm elections, on partisan battles in Washington, including one held over Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh “was beaten up so badly and so unfairly, but we got through it,” Trump said in Tupelo, while casting doubt on the accounts of the women who accused him of assault. “There were a lot of lies.”
To emphasize his point, the president traveled to Mississippi with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who in recent months has morphed from Trump’s sometimes-adversary into a presidential attack dog who emotionally sparred with Democrats during the bitter nomination process.
“We’re going to start over in 2019,” Graham told the crowd in Tupelo, “and if you like Kavanaugh, there’s more coming.”
Beyond reminding the crowd about battles back in Washington, Trump briefly sharpened his focus on Hyde-Smith’s “far left” opponent, Espy, who was also secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton.
“How does he fit in with Mississippi?” Trump asked about Espy. “How does he fit in?”
For his part, Espy made only a passing reference to Trump’s trip in a speech Monday night at an event that toggled between soaring gospel music and get-out-the-vote messages.
“There are some who chose to go to a rally somewhere else tonight,” Espy said at a church in Jackson. “I’d rather be at this kind of rally because we’re here seeking inspiration.”
As he has done frequently in the past, the president sought to tie Espy to favorite adversaries in Washington — among them, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders, and Rep. Maxine Waters of California.
“You have deep-state bad people,” Trump warned in Biloxi. “You have a lot of phony stuff going on.”
Trump’s fervent endorsement of Hyde-Smith has also evoked comparisons to last year’s Senate special election in Alabama. There, Trump unsuccessfully backed Roy S. Moore, who faced accusations of sexual misconduct and lost to the Democrat Doug Jones.
But Trump’s decision to support Hyde-Smith, a newcomer to national politics who was appointed this year to her Senate seat by Mississippi’s governor, is perhaps a surer bet than his effort to fortify Moore, among the most controversial Alabama politicians since the segregationist George C. Wallace was governor.
Still, the nooses and signs at the Capitol were a chilling reminder of how contentious the Mississippi race has become. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the nooses or the signs, and Gov. Phil Bryant said that he had asked the FBI to assist with the state’s inquiry.