GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — In a campaign stop that was both political and personal, President Donald Trump targeted Democrat Jon Tester on Thursday in a bid to get more Republicans elected to the Senate but also to punish the lawmaker he blames for derailing his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Trump unleashed a vigorous campaign-season attack on some of his most strident Democratic critics and leaned heavily into the roiling immigration debate by claiming the opposition wants to abolish the federal agency that enforces immigration laws, though no top Democrats in the House or Senate have called for such a move.
Appearing in a state he dominated in 2016, Trump sought to cast Tester as a “liberal Democrat,” railing against his voting record on issues like abortion, immigration and taxes. While Tester opposed Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and the Republican tax bill, he has also taken flak from the left for a bill easing the rules on banks.
Tester took out full-page ads in more than a dozen newspapers across the state Thursday to thank Trump for signing 16 bills the Democrat sponsored or co-sponsored.
The president has made the Montana race a priority as he hopes to help Republicans tighten the party’s hold on the Senate. He welcomed Tester’s Republican opponent, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, to the stage Thursday, calling him a “very special person.”
“You deserve a senator who doesn’t just talk like he’s from Montana. You deserve a senator who actually votes like he’s from Montana,” Trump said.
In the crowded arena, Trump made clear the campaign stop was personal as he lamented the failed nomination of White House physician Ronny Jackson to lead the VA. Trump blamed Tester for “shameful, dishonest attacks on a great man, a friend of mine.”
Trump singled out Tester in April, saying the farmer “will have a big price to pay” for releasing allegations against Jackson that included on-the-job drunkenness, overprescribing medication and fostering a hostile work environment. Jackson, a Navy rear admiral, denied the claims but withdrew his nomination. The Pentagon is investigating.
“Tester said things about him that were horrible and they weren’t true,” Trump said. “And that’s probably why I’m here. Because I won Montana by so many points, I don’t have to come here.”
He repeated slams on key Democrats, ridiculing claims by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a possible 2020 presidential challenger, of Native American heritage and referring to her again as “Pocahontas.” Trump said he would give Warren a DNA test kit in the middle of a debate and offer $1 million for her favorite charity, “paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”
“We will take that little kit, but we have to do it gently because we’re in the #MeToo generation, so we have to be very gentle, and we will very gently take that kit and we will slowly toss it,” he said.
Warren responded on Twitter, advising Trump: “While you obsess over my genes, your Admin is conducting DNA tests on little kids because you ripped them from their mamas & you are too incompetent to reunite them in time to meet a court order. Maybe you should focus on fixing the lives you’re destroying.”
Warren was referring to the Health and Human Services Department’s announcement that it will use DNA to confirm parent-child links as it tries to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico borde.
Trump described Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who has been calling for his impeachment, as a “low IQ individual” and pegged her level of intellect as “somewhere in the mid-60s,” which is considered the range for a mental disability.
Trump also returned to themes of his presidency, stressing his hard-line immigration policies and support for law enforcement.
“If you want to protect your families and your community, then you have no choice,” Trump said. “You have to vote for Republicans.”
He tweeted about immigration after the rally as he flew to New Jersey, claiming that “a vote for Democrats in November is a vote to let MS-13 run wild in our communities, to let drugs pour into our cities, and to take jobs and benefits away from hardworking Americans.”
Trump also talked tough about upcoming meetings in Europe with members of the NATO military alliance and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He went after Germany for not spending more of its budget on defense and claimed to have delivered an ultimatum to Chancellor Angela Merkel. “And I said, ‘You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us ’cause I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”
Trump also scoffed at journalists for questioning his readiness to meet with Putin, a former spy, in Finland on July 16.
“Will I be prepared? Totally prepared,” the president said. “I’ve been preparing for this stuff my whole life.”
U.S. intelligence agencies say Putin meddled in the 2016 election to benefit Trump. Putin denies interfering, and Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence assessment.
Hundreds of people began lining up outside the arena a full eight hours before Trump was scheduled to speak, and the number swelled to thousands by midday. Mechanic Shane Hegle said he drove 120 miles (195 kilometers) from his Cut Bank home to be among the first in line.
Hegle said he voted for Tester in past elections but was undecided now. Trump’s message would influence his decision, he said.
“I’ll see what Trump has to say and how he delivers his magic words,” Hegle said.
Montana is the latest stop on Trump’s midterm campaign tour, designed to boost Republicans and advocate for his first 18 months in office. He is expected to travel throughout the summer.
Superville reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Matt Volz in Great Falls contributed to this report.