CHARLESTON, W.Va. – President Donald Trump on Tuesday night addressed a crowd here in a state where he remains deeply popular, touching on his favorite themes while ignoring the legal troubles swirling around his presidency hours after his former campaign chairman and former personal lawyer were convicted of federal crimes.
In a state that he won by more than 40 points in 2016, Trump appeared on stage to deafening applause. He then took aim at NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. He praised the state’s “courageous” coal miners. He hailed Republican Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey as someone who will “fight for you like nobody’s ever fought for the people of West Virginia.”
He even praised the Thanksgiving meals his mother prepared.
“She made the greatest turkey I ever had,” Trump said.
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What Trump did not do during the rally was address either the verdict against his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, or the guilty plea made by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen – developments that sent shock waves coursing through the political world on Tuesday, with some observers warning they could threaten Trump’s own political future.
The closest he came to addressing the legal peril that has engulfed a growing number of his associates came when he derided the media as the “fake news,” then lashed out at the Russia probe being led by special counsel Robert Mueller III.
“Fake news and the Russian witch hunt. We’ve got a whole big combination,” Trump said, his voice rising. “Where is the collusion? You know, they’re still looking for collusion. Where is the collusion? Find some collusion!”
At a time of great turmoil in his presidency, Trump, who prides himself on being a counterpuncher, remained silent about the day’s legal news while welcoming the embrace of a friendly crowd that enthusiastically responded to his standard set of rally talking points.
A jury found Manafort guilty on tax and bank fraud charges Tuesday as part of the Russia investigation being run by Mueller.
Earlier, in remarks to reporters shortly after arriving here, Trump said: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort. Again, he worked for Bob Dole, he worked for Ronald Reagan. He worked for many people. And this is the way it ends up.”
He did not respond to questions about Cohen, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in a Manhattan courthouse to eight violations of banking, tax and campaign finance laws.
Cohen told a federal judge that he worked to silence two women before the 2016 election at the direction of then-candidate Trump.
Onstage at the rally, Trump reprised some of his campaign-trail greatest hits and debuted some new ones. His delivery was subdued at first and then increasingly animated, with the president pumping his fists by the rally’s end.
He flaunted his threat last month to “put a 25 percent tax on every car that comes into the United States from the European Union,” a move that he told the crowd had successfully brought EU leaders to the negotiating table.
He trumpeted the power of his campaign endorsements, which he cast as more powerful than the backing of Ronald Reagan, who “didn’t move the needle.”
He weighed in on the case of Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old college student who law enforcement officials said Tuesday was allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Trump linked the case to America’s immigration laws, which he described as “a disgrace.”
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico,” Trump said. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. Should’ve never happened – illegally in our country.”
He also took a victory lap after the White House’s announcement earlier Tuesday that it had deported 95-year-old Jakiw Palij, an alleged former Nazi labor camp guard living in the United States.
“They’ve been trying to get him out for decades,” Trump said, hailing Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers for the role they played in Palij’s removal.
And he mocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, for saying America “was never that great,” in a botched attempt last week to skewer Trump’s “Make America Great” slogan.
“‘America Was Never Great’ – that’s the Democrats’ new theme,” Trump told the West Virginia crowd.
Trump swooped into this deeply conservative territory to jolt Morrisey’s campaign against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III in one of the most closely-watched Senate battlegrounds this November.
Republican officials have hungrily eyed Manchin’s seat. West Virginia is likely the most pro-Trump of the 10 states that went for Trump in 2016 but is held by a Democratic senator up for reelection this fall.
Yet Republicans have privately been less confident about their prospects here, with Morrisey still bruised after a contentious, three-way primary for the GOP nomination in May and Manchin’s unique political brand in the state proving enduring so far.
The limited public polling since the state’s May primary has shown Manchin with a healthy lead over Morrisey, who has come under withering attacks from Democrats over his past lobbying ties to the pharmaceutical industry. And Manchin himself is a friendly figure among Republican senators and has aided them on several of the party’s legislative priorities, such as confirming Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year.
“We all like Joe Manchin III,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former chairman of the party’s campaign arm. “He just votes wrong in many cases, and so it’s certainly not personal.”
In turn, Manchin has touted his independence from the party and has declined to criticize Trump, who has repeatedly mocked the Democratic senator and slammed him for voting against key party priorities, such as the GOP tax law late last year.
In a separate move that could bolster Morrisey, the Trump administration unveiled its “Affordable Clean Energy” rule boosting the coal industry – a major sector in West Virginia – that rolls back Obama-era environmental standards setting carbon dioxide limits for each state.
Trump called Morrisey on stage and the candidate lavished him with praise while attacking Manchin for having “called Hillary warm, compassionate, engaging, tough. Can you actually believe that?”
The crowd roared back with a chant that, like Trump’s talking points, remained unchanged by Tuesday’s events: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
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Sonmez reported from Washington.