Written by Peter Baker
President Donald Trump opened his reelection year in the Midwest on Thursday, hoping to translate his confrontation with Iran into strength on the campaign trail as he boasted about killing the head of its elite security forces and derided Democrats for seeking to restrain his power to go to war.
For his first campaign rally of 2020, Trump returned to Ohio, where he has devoted much of his travel over the past three years to cement support that will be crucial to rebuilding the unlikely Electoral College coalition he assembled in 2016. But job growth has stalled in the state, and Democrats accused him of failing to live up to his promise of restoring manufacturing in the region.
Standing in front of a giant American flag, the president celebrated his decision to order a drone strike killing the Iranian commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, calling him “the world’s top terrorist” and insisting that he was planning to attack U.S. embassies despite doubts about the intelligence. “He was a bad guy,” Trump told a cheering crowd at the Huntington Center, a minor-league hockey arena. “He was a bloodthirsty terror and he’s no longer a terror. He’s dead.”
Hours after House Democrats passed a resolution intended to limit Trump’s ability to wage war without congressional permission, the president said Speaker Nancy Pelosi had her priorities wrong.
“I see the radical left Democrats have expressed outrage over the termination of this horrible terrorist,” he said. “And you know, instead, they should be outraged by Soleimani’s savage crimes.”
At the mention of Pelosi, who he said is “not operating with a full deck,” some in the crowd shouted: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Trump also singled out Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, offering a parody version of the congressman supposedly preferring to talk about taking out a terrorist instead of actually doing so. “You little pencil neck,” Trump then said derisively, as if addressing Schiff.
He made no mention of his decision to back away from further military action after Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, which resulted in no casualties. Nor did he mention the Ukrainian civilian airliner that Western intelligence agencies concluded was shot down by Iranian missiles, most likely by mistake.
The crowd was broadly supportive of his tough talk on Iran and Democrats. But several demonstrators disrupted the president’s speech, holding up hand-drawn signs saying “NO WAR” before being evicted by security officers.
Democratic leaders have said they agree that Soleimani had American blood on his hands and do not mourn his death. But they have accused Trump of approving a reckless action on flimsy claims that risked a wider war with Iran and undermined American interests in the region by alienating allies like Iraq.
“This week, you put our sons and daughters in harm’s way when you abandoned diplomacy, rejected our allies, and escalated conflict in the Middle East and around the world,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the longtime Democratic congresswoman from Toledo, wrote Trump in an open letter posted on her website before the rally. “It causes one to wonder if anyone from the Trump family has ever served in the U.S. military or in a foreign war.”
Trump’s trip to Ohio was the 15th of his presidency. Awaiting him was Vice President Mike Pence and an arena full of enthusiastic supporters, many decked out in red “Make America Great Again” caps and waving “Keep America Great” placards. Outside the arena were smaller but energized crowds of protesters, many of them waving union signs or handmade banners, like “Dump Trump.”
It was a typical Trump performance, rambling and disjointed, loose and entertaining, full of invective for his enemies and the news media, peppered with false and misleading assertions and soaked in by the appreciative crowd. In the best-hits portion of the evening, he revisited the 2016 election, as he likes to do, quoting himself, as he also likes to do, as well as anyone else who ever said anything positive about him, whether they actually did or not.
At one point, he said that he was viewed more positively by Republicans in one poll than Abraham Lincoln.
“Who do you like better, Trump or Abraham Lincoln?” he said, recalling the survey question. Some in the crowd shouted out their answer: “Trump! Trump!” although many others did not join in, perhaps quiet Lincoln admirers.
Trump said he shared the result of the poll with his wife, addressing her by her title. “I said, ‘First Lady, I just beat Abraham Lincoln in a poll,’” he said.
At another point, the president began riffing about the various Democrats running against him before lamenting that they were boring. Watching them, he said, “is like watching death.” Which might explain why he spent time recycling some of his favorite attacks on former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who is no longer even in the race.
Toward the end, after an extended attack on Democrats as corrupt, crime-loving socialists who are “stone-cold crazy,” Trump suddenly stopped and reflected on his own language. “Gee,” he said, “now I sort of understand why they hate me.”
Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points in 2016, and the state has been the bedrock of every winning Republican presidential candidate going back to the 19th century. Polling in Ohio last fall showed Trump trailing some of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in hypothetical matchups, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont by 6 percentage points and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts by 4 points, but there has been little recent independent public surveying in the state.
In few places will the economic argument be as important for Trump’s chances of winning a second term as in the Midwest, where he vowed to rebuild a manufacturing industry that has struggled in recent decades.
“The betrayal of Ohio workers and American workers ended the day I took the oath of office,” he said, citing his revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement and his trade war with China. “Ohio just had the best year economically in the history of your state,” he claimed at another point, “and this year is going to be even better, maybe much better.”
In fact, unemployment in Ohio fell from a high of 11.1% in 2010 to 4.9% under President Barack Obama. After Trump took over, it continued to fall to 4% by last summer, although in recent months it ticked back up to 4.2%. It remains higher than the national rate; and Ohio is among the 10 states with the highest in the country. The state lost 4,400 jobs last year through November and shed 2,200 manufacturing jobs over the previous year.
Ohio Democrats welcomed the president to the state by attacking his “failed policies,” like the “trade war by tweet,” as David Pepper, the state party chairman, put it. “Donald Trump has broken his promises on jobs, on trade, on health care, on education and on so much more,” Pepper told reporters.
Trump will ramp up campaign travel as the year progresses and Democrats begin voting to choose their nominee. He has rallies scheduled in the next few weeks in Milwaukee, to build support in another key Midwest battleground, and Wildwood, New Jersey, to campaign with Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who left the Democratic Party over impeachment.