ANALYSIS — “Hello, Toledo,” President Donald Trump told an arena full of supporters Thursday night as he made clear he believes the Buckeye State is now solidly GOP territory.
“We love Toledo, you remember, I was here a lot,” Trump said at the top of another raucous campaign rally. “You remember 2016 — what a year that was, right?”
He then sold the event as if he was giving his Ohio supporters a gift rather than asking for their votes again.
“And 2020 is going to be even better, no doubt,” the president said less than 10 months from Election Day. “But I’m thrilled to hold the first rally of 2020 right here in the great state of Ohio … as we begin the new year.” His backers, many waving “Keep America Great” and “Trump-Pence” signs, roared their approval.
The president hit House Democrats hard, mocked some of the leading Democratic candidates who want to take his job and offered no evidence to support some new claims about the Iranian general he ordered killed.
Here are three takeaways from his first reelection rally of this election year.
Embassies and imminence
The commander in chief did not shy away from discussing and defending his decision to kill Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who had led Iran’s lethal Quds Force. It is part of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that Trump in April dubbed a terrorist organization.
“These sadistic mass murderer Qassem Soleimani planned and executed attacks against American targets, killing and wounding thousands of U.S. servicemembers and many many thousands and even hundreds of thousands of other people,” Trump said.
“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies — and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump said, flashing his signature bravado a day after inviting Tehran back to the nuclear negotiating table. “So at my direction, the United States military eliminated Qassem Soleimani and ended his rampage through not only that part of the world, but much bigger parts of the world — he was all over.”
A senior administration official told CQ Roll Call on Friday that “the intelligence we had, which was very strong, showed that Soleimani and those he was plotting with were looking to kill American diplomats and soldiers in significant numbers.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that during a rare White House briefing a few hours later, during which he echoed Trump by saying additional Soleimani-planned attacks on U.S. embassies and other American targets were “imminent.”
But National Security Action, an organization founded by former Obama administration national security officials, included that claim in a list of alleged administration “lies” it blasted out Friday morning.
“So far, the administration has been unwilling or unable to offer any evidence publicly or even in classified Congressional briefings to suggest that Soleimani was planning an imminent strike — a necessity for the attack to be legal under U.S. and international law,” the Democratic group said in a statement. “Even senior Members of the Intelligence Committees, which are able to access even the most sensitive intelligence, have said the administration failed to make the case.”
‘Crazy Bernie’ and ‘Pocahontas’
The president and his campaign aides have proven adept at analyzing polling data, so it likely wasn’t a coincidence that he focused his Toledo attacks on Democratic presidential candidates on Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
After all, Sanders has been surging. And Trump often uses rallies to go after the Democratic candidate he sees as, on that night, his likely general election foe.
The Vermont independent, according to a RealClearPolitics average of several polls, has taken the lead in the first two voting states: Iowa and New Hampshire. Those leads are thin, but political strategists have long said if a candidate not named Joe Biden can win one or both of those states, the nomination race could become a two-candidate fight between that individual and the former vice president. Biden holds a nearly double-digit national lead, according to RealClear’s average of a list of polls.
Trump on Sanders: “He (Soleimani) loved planting the roadside bomb so now he’s gone and that’s a good thing. Bernie Sanders — ‘Crazy Bernie’ — has condemned the U.S. military strike on Soleimani, the world’s top terrorist.”
Trump on Warren (and Biden): “It’s like my job. I try and watch the competition, but it’s like watching death. Those debates are boring. … I mean, you have some real beauties. You see where ‘Pocahontas’ is slipping badly and Bernie … is going up. He’s surging, Bernie is. ‘Crazy Bernie,’ he’s surging and Biden doesn’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq.”
Economy and inequality
The president could have further fired up the crowd in Toledo by going straight into his Soleimani targeted killing sales pitch, which they later bathed in loud cheers. But, instead, he led with what his campaign aides say will be his top selling point for the next 10 months.
“Our economy is booming,” the president said minutes after taking the stage.
“Wages are soaring, workers are thriving and America’s future has never, ever looked brighter,” he said, calling America the economic “envy of the world.”
His Democratic rivals, however, disagree. While they have differences on how they, if elected, would implement economic policies, Democrats say the U.S. economy benefits mostly those at the top of the wealth scale and large corporations. They are betting that enough suburban and urban voters are feeling the squeeze of what they call a major income inequality crisis to offset Trump’s popularity in rural areas.
Still, polls show voters give the president his highest marks on his handling of the economy.
“As has remained the case during his term in office, Trump receives higher approval on his management of the economy than he does on his job rating overall as president,” the Gallup organization wrote in a summary of a recent poll. “The 57 percent approving of Trump’s handling of the economy is, by 1 percentage point, his best as president. It is also improved from his prior two readings — 50 percent in May and 53 percent in August.”