President Trump flew to Ohio on Wednesday to claim credit for keeping a government tank plant open, but distracted from his economic message with his harshest, lengthiest attack yet on Sen. John McCain, seven months after his death.
After several familiar complaints against McCain, including blaming him for wars in the Middle East, Trump expressed a new grievance: “I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which as president I had to approve,” he said, as the factory workers remained hushed.
“I don’t care about this — I didn’t get a thank you. That’s OK. We sent him on the way. But I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”
While Trump ad-libbed his comments after days of anti-McCain statements and tweets, his attacks on the late senator — a 38-year member of Congress, 2008 Republican presidential nominee and Navy veteran who endured five-and-a-half years of captivity and torture in Vietnam — date to early in Trump’s campaign, when he said McCain was no hero because he’d been captured.
The president started his attack by claiming “a lot of people are asking me” about McCain. He then spent five minutes, at a lectern with the presidential seal, grousing that McCain gave the FBI a dossier alleging Trump is compromised by the Russian government, “hoping to put me in jeopardy,” that he’d betrayed the party by opposing a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and that he bore responsibility for the Iraq war.
“Not my kind of guy, but some people like him and I think that’s great,” Trump said.
Republican leaders have been loathe to criticize Trump’s rhetoric, given the president’s support among core party voters. Many, including longtime McCain ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have responded by praising McCain without rebuking Trump. Only a few expressed anger with the president.
“It’s deplorable what he said,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Isakson said he respects the presidency “regardless of who the president is,” but Trump’s tweets and public comments about McCain show a “lack of respect for his service, and I just don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Though Wednesday’s speech in Lima, Ohio, was billed as an official presidential address — and paid for with taxpayer dollars, not campaign funds — Trump spoke repeatedly about the 2020 election, expressing confidence in his reelection prospects and using familiar political insults against Democrats, including “Crooked Hillary Clinton” and the racial slur “Pocahontas” to mock Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate.
Trump opened his remarks by telling the cheering factory workers, “You better love me — I kept this place open.”
“We have gotten so many things done and this plant is one of our great achievements,” Trump added, holding up a packet of colorful charts on the economy while complaining that the media had not given him credit.
Trump’s appearance was an effort to smooth over economic trouble signs in a politically crucial state where his trade war is hurting manufacturing.
As the president’s tariffs, and those that other nations have imposed in retaliation, have taken a toll on jobs and confidence, Trump has tried to compensate with an infusion of military spending.
The tank factory he visited, which is government-owned but operated by General Dynamics, nearly closed six years ago. Army officials told Congress that they didn’t need any more of the heavy M-1 Abrams tanks it produces because the vehicles are less suited for modern wars against insurgents.
But Trump signed a spending bill authorizing more than $2 billion for the tank, adding hundreds of jobs in a town long heavily dependent on the defense industry.
After his plant visit, Trump had a fundraiser in Canton. But he bypassed Lordstown, the site of a General Motors plant that is shutting down, to keep the storyline on job gains rather than losses.
Before Trump’s arrival in Ohio, trade advisor Peter Navarro wrote an opinion piece in Wednesday’s New York Times, claiming, “The story of the day may be about how the Trump administration saved the Lima plant from a near-death experience under President Barack Obama.”
Late last year, GM Chief Executive Mary Barra cited Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, which have cost her company and Ford roughly $1 billion each, when announcing the closure of the Lordstown plant in northeastern Ohio. The result was a loss of 1,600 jobs there and hundreds of others more at suppliers.
Earlier Wednesday, as Trump left the White House for Ohio, he gave no indication that the trade war with China would end soon, after months of hinting that negotiations for a deal were in the final stages. He has said he is likely to hold a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping to sign an agreement, but the date has slipped from his initial suggestions of a February meeting.
Recently Trump suspended a March 1 deadline for increasing auto tariffs to 25%. Referring to existing 10% tariffs, the president told reporters, “We’re talking about leaving them and for a substantial period of time, because we have to make sure that if we do the deal with China, that China lives by the deal.”
In his campaign-style speech, he continued to pressure GM to reopen the Lordstown plant, and again blamed union leaders as well for its shuttering. “What’s going on with General Motors?” he bellowed. “Open it, or sell it to somebody who wants it.”
Trump’s reelection prospects would take a blow if he is not able to win Ohio, a longtime electoral bellwether that favored him in 2016. Since he took office, Trump has seen his net approval rating in Ohio drop by 19 percentage points, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll.
In January, the most recent month for which data is available, the state’s jobless rate was at 4.7%, more than a point above the national unemployment figure.
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.