As conversations in Washington, D.C., and national headlines swirled around a new book and an anonymous column questioning President Donald Trump’s fitness for the office, thousands of people rallied behind the president and his agenda in Billings.
“The level of popularity, the level of love, not only in this room but all over the country outside of that little swampy area [in D.C.] … is unbelievable,” Trump told the cheering crowd at Rimrock Auto Arena on Sept. 6.
A number of Park County residents were in the audience — including Lelon and Terri Tucker of Cody, who, along with their granddaughters, just happened to land prime seats directly behind the president.
“... We like Trump and we want to back him,” said Lelon Tucker. “It seems like there’s so many negative things against him; we wanted to do something good.”
Terri Tucker added that she supports every president and “they all need to be supported.”
All the locals who attended the rally and visited with the Tribune said part of the motivation for making the trip north was simply the rare chance to see the president of the United States in person.
“Unfortunately, Wyoming’s kind of a gimme, so they don’t come here often,” said Josh Baxter of Powell.
For decades, presidents and presidential candidates have generally made few visits to Wyoming, because it votes so heavily Republican; Trump received roughly 67 percent of the state’s votes in 2016 — including more than 73 percent of the ballots in Park County. Beyond the chance to see a president, there was clear enthusiasm about this particular president among the attendees.
“If it was Hillary [Clinton], I wouldn’t even go to Cody for that,” quipped Alan Kent of Powell. For Trump, however, he arrived at the Rimrock Auto Arena about five hours before the president spoke, securing a spot on the arena floor.
“I voted for him because at the time it was the alternative,” Kent said of Trump. “But I have to say that since then, I’m pretty impressed with what he’s done.”
Kent listed this year’s tax cuts, a slow down on gangs crossing the southern border, new trade deals with Mexico and Canada, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, a slate of conservative judges and, as a police officer, he’s also appreciated Trump’s support for law enforcement.
The Tuckers said they appreciate Trump’s work on safety and security — from the military to illegal immigration issues.
Plus, “I’m just tickled to death if he can bring factories and stuff back to our country” Lelon Tucker said.
Baxter said he appreciates the lower taxes and regulations, saying coal “got killed” under President Barack Obama’s administration.
“I think, especially being from Wyoming, it’s had a big impact on coal — and you know oil’s been rebounding, which is good,” Baxter said. “So yeah, I’m a fan of less government and more private companies and individuals being able to make decisions about their own wellbeing.”
Ryan Miller of Powell, who described himself as “pretty pleased” with what Trump’s done, similarly cited the “big time” economic turnaround and reduced regulations — especially for the energy industry.
“I mean, there really wouldn’t be a Wyoming without it [the industry], right now, anyway,” Miller said. He said he can only imagine the amount of money, perhaps billions of dollars, that’s been saved by reduced regulations.
“Nobody’s going to do the job perfectly,” Miller added, going on to say that, “Given the constant criticism and the people that are out to get him out of there, most people would have cracked by now.”
A day before the Billings rally, The New York Times published a guest column written by an anonymous “senior administration official” who claimed there’s a group of people in the Trump administration working to “thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” That op-ed came shortly after excerpts of a new book by journalist Bob Woodward hit the national news, reporting that Trump advisers like former National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn took documents off Trump’s desk to keep him from making rash decisions.
Trump dismissed the reports, saying the White House truly is “a well-oiled machine” that’s “working so well.” He suggested the op-ed could amount to treason.
“Unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself,” he told the crowd.
During his main speech and a live interview he granted to Fox News — remarks which ran roughly an hour and a half in total — Trump also repeatedly complained that the media has been unfair and biased against him.
He talked at length about how he was criticized for being too hard on some foreign leaders, such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and too easy on others, like Russian President Vladimir Putin; Trump said he’d receive the opposite criticism if he switched approaches
“The truth is, with these people, you can’t win. But we’re winning,” Trump said. “Unprecedented.”
The president found sympathetic ears among those in attendance.
Kent said perhaps the most impressive thing about Trump is that “he takes the crap he does and he gets up every morning and he does it again,” guessing that, personally, he’d quit after about six months of that negativity.
As an example of the unfair coverage against him, Trump said he’d just received a message from Kim Jong Un that included some “terrific things about me” and a wish to denuclearize during his presidency.
“You won’t hear that from the fake news media,” Trump said, who singled out the Washington Post, CNN and the “failing” New York Times for criticism during his remarks.
(Roughly 16 hours before the rally, in their Sept. 6 edition and online, The New York Times did publish a story headlined, “Kim Jong-un says he wants denuclearization in Trump’s current term.”)
Fairly early in the rally, Trump pointed out the dozens of national and regional journalists covering the event — “Look at all the fake news back there,” he said — which prompted the audience to deliver a chorus of boos.
In separately praising U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., Trump made a not-so-subtle reference to the congressman’s altercation with a reporter for The Guardian newspaper in 2017. Gianforte reportedly slammed the reporter to the ground and punched him after becoming frustrated with his questioning. Gianforte pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of assault in connection with the incident.
“I’ll tell you what, this man has fought in more ways than one,” Trump said of Gianforte. “Figure of speech. He is a fighter and winner.”
The audience cheered in approval.
“Choke slam!” yelled one attendee standing near the media area.
Trump described the media as the “fake news allies” of the “left-wing haters, angry mobs [and] deep state radicals” in the Democratic party.
CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, in attendance at the rally, tweeted the president’s remark with a note that, “This is not tethered to reality.”
Acosta has drawn fame (and infamy) for his heated exchanges at White House press briefings and, as perhaps the most recognizable face among the media members, received some heckling.
Miller shouted a, “Hey, Jimmy” to Acosta from his front-row seat.
“I didn’t say anything negative to him [Acosta] because in all honesty … he was actually polite there, so how can you beat a guy down for doing his job?” Miller said, adding, “Jim [Acosta] is sitting there grandstanding off this just as much as Trump is, so they’re both to blame. I mean, it is obvious if you do watch that they do not like Trump and he does not like them.”
Montana Senate race
Trump also does not like U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., which is why the president was back in Big Sky Country for a second time in three months. Trump blasted Tester on a slew of issues, including his opposition to Republican initiatives like the tax cut and support of Democrats and Tester’s role in derailing Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. and Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson.
Trump is backing Republican State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who’s welcomed the president’s endorsement in his run against Tester.
Rosendale got a few minutes to talk, pledging to support Trump’s agenda and thanking the president “for fighting for us and always putting America first.”
Beyond backing Rosendale, Trump encouraged attendees to vote Republican this November.
“We have to get the Republicans to get things we want,” Trump told the audience, including a wall on the Mexican border. (“Build that wall!” the crowd chanted at multiple points.)
Im contrast, Trump issued warnings about what he says could come from a Democratic Congress — including suggesting that unfriendly lawmakers could try to impeach him.
“... I say, how do you impeach someone that’s doing a great job that hasn’t done anything wrong?” Trump asked rhetorically.
If he’s removed from office, Trump said that would turn the U.S. into a “third-world country,” with each party trying to impeach the other party’s president “before you even found out whether or not he or she is going to do a great job.”
Further, he said Democrats will open the borders to let criminals come in, raise taxes, ruin Medicare, raid Social Security and appoint judges to take away Americans’ gun rights.
“Trump turning the midterms into a season of fear, sounding increasingly paranoid at this rally in Montana,” CNN’s Acosta tweeted toward the end of the event. “A lot of talk about impeachment, the ‘deep state,’ and haters out to take down his presidency. More blatant falsehoods like Dems out to end Medicare and confiscating guns.”
The Washington Post published a “fact check” of Trump’s Billings speech on Tuesday, writing that more than two-thirds of the president’s statements — including those about Democratic positions on Medicare and Social Security — were “false, misleading or unsupported by the evidence.”
While the event was ostensibly built around Rosendale’s run against Tester, there was no question who was the big draw.
“There’s no place like a Rosendale rally. Forget Trump: Rosendale,” Trump said at the start of his speech. “But there is no place like a Trump rally, right? We have a good time.”
A ‘really positive’ event
Local attendees were impressed with the event, including with how smoothly it was run.
Baxter said the rally had a lot more people and much higher energy than a 2001 event he attended in Billings for President George W. Bush.
The Tuckers said it was a great experience, saying they had good conversations with Secret Service personnel, Billings area law enforcement officers, rally volunteers and fellow rally attendees. That included the now-famous “plaid shirt guy,” who sat just feet away from the Tuckers and their granddaughters. That young man in the plaid shirt, Billings high school student Tyler Linfesty, was removed from the rally after TV cameras captured some of his animated reactions to Trump’s remarks — and after he put on a rose emblem representing the Democratic Socialists of America.
Terri Tucker said Linfesty and his two friends “were really nice kids.”
In conversations before the rally started, “everybody had different opinions and ideas and ... surprisingly enough, it was democracy in action,” she said. “Because everybody was entitled to have those opinions, say what was on their mind or what they were thinking and it was great.”
Terri Tucker said the event was also a great learning experience for her two granddaughters — starting with the protesters they saw outside the Rimrock Auto Arena.
“I thought, ‘What a wonderful lesson for the two girls,’ because it’s OK to respectfully agree to disagree in any part of our society and our lives,” she said. “And that’s what causes great leaders.”
In his pre-speech interview with Fox News, Trump predicted that Republicans will do well in the country’s Nov. 6 election.
“It will be an exciting day, I can tell you that,” Trump said, before reminiscing about his upset win in 2016: “Nothing will be as exciting as our day ...”