CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — He railed against the “fake news” media. He urged the Senate to put more “heart” into its health care bill. And he mused about putting solar panels on a Mexican border well.
Buoyed by the embrace of his loyal supporters and Republican victories in a pair of special elections, President Donald Trump shrugged off the cloud of scandal that has enveloped his White House and turned back to the clock to 2016, delivering a vintage campaign-style performance in a key Midwest battleground state he won a year ago.
“We’re 5-0 in special elections,” Trump said, reveling in Georgia Republican Karen Handel’s congressional victory in an election viewed as an early referendum on his presidency. “The truth is, people love us … they haven’t figured it out yet.”
Savoring the cheers from a boisterous crowd that packed an arena in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump also applauded Republican Ralph Norman, who notched a slimmer-than-expected win in a special election to fill the South Carolina congressional seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, and mocked Handel’s challenger, Jon Ossoff, saying the Democrats “spent $30 million on this kid who forgot to live in the district.”
Trump, no stranger to victory laps, turned his visit into a celebration of his resilience despite his tumbling poll numbers. With the appearance in Cedar Rapids, he has held five rallies in the first five months in office.
The event underscored Trump’s comfort in a campaign setting. He laughed off the occasional heckler, repeated riffs from last year’s rallies and appeared far more at ease when going after Democrats in front of adoring crowds than he seems in trying to push through his own legislative agenda from the confines of the White House.
Trump’s aides are making a renewed push to get the president out of Washington, which is consumed by the investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s election and Trump’s firing of his FBI director.
Campaign rallies energize Trump by placing him in front of supporters who have stuck by him and are likely to dismiss the investigations as inside-Washington chatter.
Iowa, with its large share of independent voters, could be a proving ground for whether Trump can count on the support of voters beyond his base. Unaffiliated voters — or “no party” voters, as they are known in Iowa — make up 36 percent of the electorate, compared with 33 percent who register Republican and 31 percent who register as Democrat.
Self-identified independents in Iowa voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 13-percentage-point margin last year, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. That margin helped Trump take the state by nearly 9 points after Barack Obama won it for Democrats the previous two elections.
Trump held a Des Moines rally in December as part of a “thank you” tour of states he had won, but he hasn’t returned to Iowa since.
Wednesday night, he praised his administration’s efforts to roll back regulations, derided wind power for killing birds in a state that uses a lot of it and revealed that he urged the Senate to create a health care plan “with heart. Add some money to it!”
He avoided any discussion of the scandals surrounding his presidency, other than one brief reference to the “witch hunt,” which is what he has dubbed the probes into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Trump’s evening in Iowa began with a tribute to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whom he appointed the United States’ ambassador to China. He saluted Branstad, the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history and an early Trump backer, as “a legend” and “one great man.”
Trump’s stop at Kirkwood Community College was intended to draw attention to the school’s advancements in high-tech agriculture, but he resisted sitting behind the wheel of a virtual reality device that simulated a giant combine harvester. He was joined by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as part of the administration’s latest theme week, this time to highlight the importance of technology. He later hyped the wealth of Ross and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, saying: “Those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense?”
But much of Trump’s attention was on the suburbs of Atlanta, in the 6th Congressional District race.
Democrats had lavished attention and money on Tuesday’s special election, hoping for a victory that would underscore Republican worries about Trump and serve as a harbinger of a Democratic wave in 2018.
Instead, Handel’s victory, in a traditional Republican stronghold that rarely produces a competitive contest, was met with a sigh of relief among the GOP.
Trump tweeted several times during the night and capped the night off with a text message to supporters referring to his “Make America Great Again” slogan:
“The MAGA Mandate is stronger than ever. BIG LEAGUE.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.
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