In Pa. visit, Trump attacks Biden for ‘vicious, hateful and divisive’ address

Jonathan Tamari and William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Former president Donald Trump, on left, listening to Doug Mastriano, PA gubernatorial candidate, on right, speaking at the Save America rally at the Mohegan Sun Casey Arena in Wilkes-Barre, P.A. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Former President Donald Trump forcefully hit back at President Joe Biden on Saturday night, saying the Democrat’s recent address in Philadelphia was “the most vicious, hateful, and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president, vilifying 75 million citizens.”

“He’s an enemy of the state,” Trump told a roaring crowd of thousands. And he said Philadelphia was the right place for the speech, “because the city is being devastated under Democrat rule.”

While the speech was billed as a rally to help Pennsylvania’s top GOP candidates, Mehmet Oz, for Senate, and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, for governor, Trump spent most of his speech airing his old personal grievances, and some new ones.

More:Doug Mastriano sues Jan. 6 committee over deposition

More:More Republicans back Josh Shapiro for Pennsylvania governor

More:Is Dr. Oz done? Republicans still see a path to a comeback against Fetterman

More:Mehmet Oz responds to crudités shopping video

He briefly mentioned Oz and Mastriano, before immediately pivoting to his anger at Biden, and the recent FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home as they tried to recover classified documents.

He called it an “evil and demented persecution of you and me.”

It was Trump’s first public response to Biden’s blistering condemnation Thursday, when Biden cast Trump and “MAGA Republicans” as a threat to democracy, pointing to Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot he inspired.

After a presidency marked by his own slash-and-burn style, personally insulting Democrats for their looks, calling them “sick” and “evil,” pressuring law enforcement to prosecute his rivals and go easy on his friends, Trump on Saturday pointed those same accusations at Democrats, casting them as vicious.

“The danger to democracy comes from the radical left, not from the right,” he said, as the crowd roared in approval. Trump then continued to lie about the 2020 election, calling it rigged despite that claim being refuted by law enforcement, and his own aides.

The event was Trump’s first major general election event this year, and his first formal public appearance since the FBI search, conducted with a warrant approved by a judge.

While Trump nodded to the campaign arguments that Republicans hope will power their campaigns this fall — calling the election “a referendum on skyrocketing inflation, rampaging crime,” and “the corruption and extremism of Joe Biden and the radical Democrat Party — he was mostly focused on his own complaints.

Over the first hour of his talk he mostly railed against his two impeachments, the Russia investigation, the 2020 election outcome, and Hillary Clinton, the Democrat he defeated six years ago. He complained about electric cars and wind turbines, barely mentioning Oz or Mastriano through his first 80 minutes of speaking. He condemned the Senate’s top Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell, twice before getting to Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

Biden, days earlier, had sharply excoriated Trump and his allies as a danger to American values. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the foundations of our very republic,” Biden said at Independence Hall.

The event came as the two major candidates Trump has endorsed in Pennsylvania, Oz and Mastriano, have trailed their Democratic rivals over the summer.

Pennsylvania’s races for Senate and governor are two of the country’s marquee contests, and he could get credit for GOP wins — or blame if his picks cost the party winnable races.

Trump’s rally also came in the midst of Biden’s three-event swing through the state. He was also in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday, in Philadelphia on Thursday and will be back Monday for Pittsburgh’s Labor Day march.

Days after Biden warned about the lawless tilt of much of the GOP, the opening portion of the rally was infused with sympathy for those arrested during the Jan. 6 riot.

Other Republicans hit back at Biden’s speech also.

“Biden insulted us, Biden demeaned us, Biden belittled us,” said Jim Bognet, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in northeastern Pennsylvania. “A shameful and disgusting display by an American president.”

The series of events by the current and former presidents, and potential 2024 rivals, has highlighted the national stakes of Pennsylvania’s races this year, and the way they may foreshadow the next presidential election, when the state will again be a premier battleground.

Trump’s visit, just ahead of Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign homestretch, aimed to boost two candidates closely affiliated with him. Oz, whom Trump helped pull over the finish line in a competitive GOP Senate primary, has struggled to consolidate support among Republicans, after rivals sharply questioned his commitment to conservative values. He was even booed by some of the crowd at his last rally with Trump, in May. Trump’s support might help him improve his standing on the right.

(U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, who praised Mastriano and attacked Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, didn’t mention Oz in her remarks.)

Oz won cheers from the crowd Saturday, and hammered Fetterman as soft on crime, while rehashing many of his scripted lines from his primary stump speech. “The only thing Joe Biden has built back better is the Republican Party,” Oz said before Trump came on stage at Mohegan Sun Arena.

But Mastriano got a far stronger response — “Doug for Gov!” the crowd chanted as he came onstage — and channeled Trump with attacks on transgender women playing women’s sports, critical race theory, and “illegals.”

“We the people are pissed. I know I am,” he said, “especially after that ridiculous speech the other day.”

Mastriano has endeared himself to the Trump wing of the party but has done little to expand his reach and has struggled to raise the money needed to advertise to a wider audience. The Trump rally represented a chance for wider media attention.

Ahead of the speeches, Mastriano gave interviews to conservative news organizations, but when journalists from mainstream outlets approached, his aides intervened. As Mastriano and his wife, Rebbie, chatted with Greene, a large man in a blazer repeatedly moved left to right to physically block a New York Times reporter from even witnessing the exchange.

Rebbeca and Doug Mastriano, PA gubernatorial candidate, in center, with Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, on right, at the Save America rally at the Mohegan Sun Casey Arena in Wilkes-Barre, P.A. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Around 80 minutes into his speech Trump eventually turned to the Pennsylvania races, saying Oz would be “a phenomenal” senator and hailing Mastriano as one of his earliest allies, calling him a “fearless warrior for Pennsylvania workers and Pennsylvania values.”

(At least some in the crowd still called out that Oz is a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only.)

When Trump did attack Fetterman, he invented a series of charges about personal drug use and policy positions he hasn’t taken while attacking his signature look, saying he dresses “like a teenager getting high in his parents’ basement.”

Hours before the event, vendors hawked Trump flags, T-shirts and stickers, and every other sort of merchandise imaginable. Gun owners for Trump. Bikers for Trump. Blacks for Trump. Latinos for Trump. “F— Biden. Trump is my president,” read some paraphernalia.

But for GOP candidates, Trump’s imprint also carries risks. The former president is deeply unpopular in vote-rich areas like Philadelphia and its suburbs, and a spotlight on Trump in this fall’s election could take the attention off of anemic approval ratings weighing on Biden.

Democrats were thrilled to see Oz and Mastriano alongside Trump.

“Donald Trump is gunning for Doug Mastriano to be Pennsylvania’s next Governor for one reason: Doug will do anything to make sure that Trump wins in 2024,” said a fund-raising email by Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “Doug and Trump are in lockstep about dismantling our very democracy.”

Fetterman used the event to hit back at weeks of Oz attacks over his record on crime. He pointed out that Oz joined an event with Mastriano, who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Trump, who incited the attack and called Thursday for pardoning rioters, and apologizing to them.

“Just like Oz’s medical advice, it’s clear his claim to care about crime is complete bulls—,” Fetterman said in a statement.

Democrats have accused Oz of trying to distance himself from Trump after embracing the former president’s endorsement during the GOP primary. Saturday’s rally, for example, wasn’t advertised on Oz’s campaign site. Instead, a Sept. 10 event with Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) is advertised as Oz’s “fall campaign kick off.”

In coming to Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County, Trump returned to a region of strength. He helped flip a onetime Democratic stronghold, making northeastern Pennsylvania an emblem of his appeal to white, working-class voters.

“I love him. It’s his whole persona. He says what’s on his mind,” Betsy Wormer, a Trump supporter from Selinsgrove, in central Pennsylvania.

Wormer said that she wasn’t very familiar with Mastriano or Oz — but that Trump’s stamp of approval was enough to secure her vote for both.

Merry Belle Hodges, a retired health-care and school administrator, traveled to the event from Georgia, where she’s still trying to decertify Biden’s 2020 victory.

“We do have to move forward, but we can’t pretend like nothing happened,” she said.

Despite Trump’s popularity in northeastern Pennsylvania, it remains a battleground, and Democrats are working to win it back, or at least narrow their losses, as evidenced by Biden’s stop in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday and Shapiro’s swing through the region Saturday.

At one event, Shapiro opened a campaign office on Biden Street in Scranton.