Days before a special election that is being touted symbolically as the first midterm of 2018, President Donald Trump came to Pittsburgh to pledge support for GOP candidate Rick Saccone and tease out his 2020 re-election ambitions.
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Saccone is a 60-year-old Air Force veteran and state representative vying for a House seat in the March 13 contest against Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former U.S. attorney and Marine Corps captain.
In an address that appeared to largely veer off-teleprompter, and that clocked in at 1 hour and 15 minutes, Trump took several minutes to criticize the "fake news" press, then launched his planned 2020 election campaign slogan, "Keep America Great!"
Trump additionally took shots at Oprah Winfrey, claiming "I know her weakness," and called out Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren as potential rivals, receiving swelling applause and drawing boos for Winfrey, Sanders and Warren.
The president finally asked for Pennsylvania to "elect people that are going to back our agenda and fight for our values."
And he claimed he needed the backing from lawmakers like Saccone to prevent "obstructionist" Democrats from blocking his administration's efforts.
"We want to keep the agenda 'Make America Great' going," he said.
Musing on new campaign slogans, Trump says he can't use "Make America Great Again," because he already did it.— Adam Kelsey (@adam_kels) March 11, 2018
After a brief mention of Saccone at the top of the event, Trump said he hoped to make a congratulatory call on March 13, which is when Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls.
"Do me a favor, get out on Tuesday, vote for Rick Saccone, and we can leave right now," he joked, as he pretended to walk off stage.
He then segued to weightier topics.
In his first public remarks since he accepted a high-stakes meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said he's hopeful the man he once nicknamed "Rocket Man" and who he said is a "man who's nuked up all over the place," may consider denuclearization.
"Who knows, hey, who knows?" he told the cheering crowd.
Trump also touted momentum he claims to have gotten by coming out for new steel tariffs -– a controversial move that angered Republicans on Capitol Hill and reportedly prompted the departure of Trump's own chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, but has played well in in Pennsylvania, the heart of steel country.
"Steel is back!" the president proclaimed.
Awaiting Trump in PA. "In the rust belt, we struggle," a rally-goer tells me. "For him to come here and fight for us, that was big for me." pic.twitter.com/QhHELR4IqX— Erin Dooley (@erindooley) March 10, 2018
Reprising a campaign favorite, Trump once again pledged to build a wall along the nation's southern border, noting that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto asked Trump to publicly acknowledge that his country would not fund the wall's construction.
"I said, 'Bye, bye, we're not making a deal,'" said Trump, adding that he reassured Nieto that they could hash out the wall specifics over a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, saying, "Don't worry, it all comes out in the wash."
The president slammed former presidents including: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and then pointed at the throng of press attending the event before verbally jabbing the "sleepy eye son-of-a-bitch" NBC anchor Chuck Todd, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Martha Stewart, who he said "failed" on his NBC show, "The Apprentice," while he held the boardroom chair for 14 years and raked in ratings.
At one point, Trump rhetorically asked: "Is there any more fun than at a Trump rally?"
He then mocked how other candidates attempt to be presidential but fail to inspire.
"This is what got us elected," Trump said. "If I came here like a stiff you guys wouldn't like it very much."
A female shouting from the crowd hollered, "You're one of us."
The wide-ranging remarks came three days ahead of the Pennsylvania 18th congressional district's special election, poised to jump-start the 2018 midterm season. With polls showing a race within 5 points in the district, which Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016, the president's appearance Saturday was considered the closing argument needed to usher Saccone's struggling campaign across the finish line.
Instead, Trump made only brief references to the race and, at one point, was nearly complimentary of Saccone's upstart Democratic challenger, Conor Lamb, calling him handsome and saying he "looks like a nice guy."
"I might like him," Trump said. "And then Rick is going to be very angry at me"
Lamb, a 33-year-old former U.S. assistant attorney and Marine Corps captain is running a decidedly moderate campaign in the deep-red district, staking out positions to the right of some Republican members of Congress by supporting Trump's recent steel and aluminum tariffs and opposing some of the gun control proposals pitched by his fellow Democrats in the wake of last month's school shooting in Florida.
Toward the end of his speech, Trump invited Saccone to the stage and ribbed him about how the crowd and his district is "Trump Country."
"I won this district," Trump said, before calling him special. "Look at all those red hats, Rick."
He also told the crowd the stakes are high in Pennsylvania.
"The whole world is watching," he said. "Go out and vote Tuesday for Rick Saccone ... he will never disappoint you. He's a winner."
When Saccone stepped up to the lectern he shouted, "Do we love our president in western Pennsylvania?"
Then told Trump, "They love you."
Then the candidate, whose voice was weak, said that it was time to end the sale and get him elected.
"As any good businessman knows you work on a deal you work and this a time to close the deal," he said. "Are you going to help me on Tuesday?
"Let's close this deal."
Saccone has been an outspoken, unapologetic Trump supporter who once called himself "Trump before Trump was Trump."
Some attendees Saturday night said they felt that the 45th president's presence in the state was special.
"In the rust belt over here, we struggle," 54-year-old insurance worker Mike Lauro of Butler, Pennsylvania, said. "These communities, they're devastated. For him to come and fight for us, that was big for me."
During the 2016 election, Trump took the 18th Congressional District by 20 points.
But, according to a recent Monmouth University poll the race between Saccone and Lamb is tight, with Saccone edging Lamb 49 percent to 46 percent.
The younger opponent has raised $3.5 million so far through 2018, tripling Saccone's over $900,000 effort. But Saccone has benefitted from over $10 million in spending by major Republican groups and Super PACs.
Lamb's run in this district marks the first by a Democrat since 2012.
Trump's visit comes after Vice President Mike Pence made appearances in the state on Saccone's behalf, while former Vice President Joe Biden spoke before union workers at the Carpenters Training Center urging voters to send Lamb to D.C.
A win for Lamb, Biden contended would buck a long Republican hold on the district and "set a trend in the nation."
The state is unique in that it was decided back in February by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redraws the congressional map.
The changes are is especially significant to districts that encompass the Philadelphia suburbs, and the new map creates another competitive district in northeast Pennsylvania near Allentown.
If the move is upheld, it could shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans have already challenged the decision in court and Trump said during the rally that he hoped the Supreme Court would intervene.
"You see what they're doing with the congressional districts," he said. "They're doing a number and, hopefully, the United States Supreme Court will take that case because this is horrible what they've done. They had state judges that are Democrats change your voting districts. What kind of stuff is that?"