LANSING, MI — President Donald Trump attacked political rivals Joe Biden and Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer while making his pitch to voters at a Lansing rally one week before the Nov. 3 election.
Trump was met by an estimated 10,000 supporters who waited hours in 37-degree weather and persistent rain at the Capitol Region International Airport in Lansing, one of three rallies he held in battleground states Tuesday. The president said this election is a “matter of economic survival for Michigan,” arguing his policies will result in new investment in the state’s auto industry.
“In the first three and a half years, no one has been able to do what this administration has been able to do,” Trump said. “If I don’t always play by the rules in Washington and the Washington establishment it’s because I was elected to fight for you. I fight harder than any president has ever fought before.”
The president opened his 68-minute speech by predicting a “red wave,” saying he expects Michigan voters to help reelect him four years after he pulled off a narrow victory and flipped the state. Trump also encouraged voters to elect Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James and 8th District U.S. House candidate Paul Junge, who gave speeches before the president arrived.
Polls of Michigan voters taken in the last month of the election have consistently shown Biden leading, including a recent survey from Lansing pollster EPIC-MRA that found Trump behind by 10 percentage points. In an interview Sunday, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said polls don’t account for the GOP ground operation that is mobilizing voters on a scale never before seen in Michgian.
Trump accused Biden of corruption, called for schools to reopen in-person learning and celebrated the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. He criticized Biden’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and said his Democratic rival’s policies would devastate Michigan’s economy. At one point, Trump halted the rally to play a pre-recorded collection of statements Biden made on trade.
“This election is a choice between a Trump super recovery and a Biden recession,” the president said. “It’s a choice between a Trump boom and Biden lockdown.”
Trump called Whitmer “a disaster” and smiled while supporters started a chant of “lock her up” after he referenced her again later in the rally. At a campaign rally in Muskegon earlier this month, Trump’s supporters chanted “lock her up” after he criticized her pandemic response. “Lock them all up,” Trump said in response.
In Lansing, Trump did not discourage the chant either. He complained that Whitmer has blamed his words for inspiring threats and harassment directed toward her.
“See I don’t comment on that,” Trump said as the chant subsided. “Even if I make even a little nod they say ‘the president led them on.’ I didn’t need to lead you on.”
Trump said his Justice Department helped Whitmer with “her problem” — a reference to the foiled plot to kidnap the governor, storm the Michigan Capitol and kill police officers.
“People are entitled to say maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t,” Trump said.
Fourteen men, all affiliated with or members of a militia named the Wolverine Watchmen, are now charged with crimes related to an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer. Six are charged federally with conspiracy to commit kidnapping and eight others are charged under Michigan anti-terrorism laws with various crimes.
Whitmer penned an op-ed published by The Atlantic hours before Trump’s rally in Lansing, saying his rhetoric inspires “vicious attacks” against her.
“This is no coincidence, and the president knows it. He is sowing division and putting leaders, especially women leaders, at risk,” she wrote.
Supporters viewed Trump’s decision to hold a rally near Michigan’s Capitol and in Whitmer’s home city as a symbolic gesture pointed at the Democratic governor. Trump has frequently criticized Whitmer on the campaign trail and during presidential debates, demanding that she reopen the state.
“It sends a message to our governor that the people who coalesce here and support the president will not support her,” said Mark Scott, a 59-year-old Lewiston resident. “I think it was a well-chosen place. The venue was a perfect choice.”
Eaton Rapids resident Rebecca Major said coming to Whitmer’s home city is “a total Trump move.” Major hopes the rally sends the governor a message.
“She doesn’t own Michigan,” Major said. “She’s here working for us. She’s not a dictator and our economy is important.”
The president also called Whitmer a “dictator” during a Fox News interview.
Members of the Proud Boys stood behind a display near supporters waiting in line to enter the event. Two members of the far-right group, known for demonstrations that often involve violent street fights, declined an interview.
All eyes on Michigan
Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, the narrowest margin in the state’s history of presidential elections. Both campaigns have dispatched a steady stream of surrogates to the battleground state in October, and more than 2.1 million Michigan voters have already cast a ballot as of Tuesday.
Both campaigns have kept their schedule full of events in Michigan this month. Vice President Mike Pence will hold a rally at the Bishop International Airport in Flint Wednesday.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is planning to visit Michigan on Saturday, three days before the Nov. 3 election. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris visited Southfield, Detroit, Troy and Pontiac Sunday.
More than 3.1 million registered voters requested an absentee ballot a week before the election. Reliably Democratic-voting cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor top the list of most ballots returned as of Oct. 27.
James, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, urged the crowd not to get complacent. He noted that Democrats swept statewide offices in 2018 with a surge in turnout. James also lost his challenge to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, that same year.
“You want to talk a big game, you’ve got to show up,” James said.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson urged voters to hand-deliver their ballots to their city or township clerk’s office or ballot drop box instead of putting it in the mail. It’s too close to Election Day to rely on the Postal Service to deliver absentee ballots on time, she said in a release.
Several Trump supporters at the rally said they’re waiting until Nov. 3 to vote. Debbie Simpson, 61, is recovering from hip surgery but still plans to cast her ballot in person.
Simpson said she’s concerned about the coronavirus, but feels the push to mail every registered voter an absentee ballot could lead to irregularities. Benson has repeatedly stressed that won’t happen.
David Brown, a 53-year-old Lyndon Township resident, said he believes the election will be contested regardless of who wins but doesn’t have a problem with people casting their vote before Election Day.
Port Huron resident Carolyn Szparahea, 50, visited her local clerk’s office to cast an absentee ballot in person. Szparahea, who described herself as a “suburban housewife” who loves Trump, said she’s not concerned about the coronavirus but wanted to vote early as a precaution.
“I did it early because I felt as though if something was to happen within the coming days before the election I wanted to make sure my voice was heard,” she said. “Maybe if I got an illness or something happened with a family member and I couldn’t make it.”
Trump pledged he would bring a “swift end” to the coronavirus with the development of a vaccine in his second term.
“Normal life will fully resume, and that’s what we want right?” Trump said. “Take us back seven months ago.”
Lansing Emergency Management Chief William Engelter said the campaign estimated 10,000 to 12,000 attendees. Outdoor seating and three bleachers set up for supporters were filled well before the president appeared, with an estimated 5,000 people arriving around 11:45 a.m., two hours before Trump was scheduled to speak.
Masks were required to enter the event, but many people took them off once inside.
Coronavirus rises in Michigan
Michigan Democrats criticized Trump for holding a campaign rally as COVID-19 cases and deaths rise across the country. The Democratic National Committee launched digital ads in the Lansing area criticizing Trump for “holding dangerous campaign rallies that threaten to worsen the spread of coronavirus.”
Michigan has reported 161,907 confirmed cases and 7,211 deaths linked to the virus as of Monday, while Johns Hopkins University reported 8.7 million confirmed cases and 226,171 deaths across the entire U.S. New cases, hospitalizations and deaths have increased in Michigan during the last month.
Trump claimed a rise in confirmed cases across the country is because more tests are being taken.
The average number of daily tests is up 30% in October compared to September, but the number of new cases is up 87%. The percent of tests that come back positive has also increased, from 3.2% in September to 4.4% in October.
Michigan reported 503 adults were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected coronavirus on Sept. 26, which grew to 1,479 by Oct. 26. There were 449 deaths in the first 26 days of October compared to 289 for all of September.
Rallygoers who spoke with MLive said they don’t think reported statistics accurately represent the situation.
“I just don’t believe it’s a threat,” Brown said. “I don’t believe deaths are all due to coronavirus.”
Lansing resident Hayden Voss, 20, said he people should be allowed to decide for themselves whether it’s worth the risk to attend political rallies.
“I’m concerned but also like the president said, you can’t let it dominate your life and I’m not going to do that,” he said.
Tuesday’s rally was held on the north end of Lansing, near the boundary of Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.
Trump won Clinton County by 13 points and Eaton County by 5 points in 2016. He gained more votes in both counties compared to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, while Democratic votes decreased.
Both parties saw a drop in Ingham County votes in 2016 compared to the 2012 presidential election. Trump lost the county by 29 percentage points, a slightly worse outcome than Romney’s performance.
DeWitt resident Michael Lee, 64, said Trump’s decision to come to Michigan so close to the election shows how important the state is to his reelection hopes.
“It shows he really understands and needs Michigan’s vote,” Lee said. “If you look at the lines, the enthusiasm is going to be hard for any Democrat to overcome.”
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