GREENSBORO, N.C.—Donald Trump isn’t pivoting to the center. If anything, he’s growing more bombastic, more erratic, more—well, more like Trump, as the primary gives way to the general election.
Celebrating his 70th birthday, the presumptive Republican nominee provided attendees a mix of red meat and bewilderment, veering between denunciations of Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and The Washington Post (all well received) and proclamations of his strong support for LGBT Americans (met with some apprehension). In the weirdest moment of the night, Trump seemed to imply that American troops in Iraq had pocketed money meant for reconstruction after the war.
“How about bringing baskets of money, millions and millions of dollars, and handing it out?” Trump said. “I want to know, who are the soldiers that had that job? Because I think they’re living very well right now, whoever they may be.” The comment was met with bemused silence by attendees, many of whom were veterans themselves. (The debatable political calculus aside, there have been such accusations made in the past. In any case, a spokeswoman later said that Trump meant Iraqi soldiers.)
The shooting in Orlando over the weekend has given Trump a new way to talk about immigration and national security. It has also dashed Republican officials’ latest hopes that Trump might be persuaded to tone down his rhetoric. Instead, he has redoubled his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, effectively accused Obama of treason, and announced that he would not credential The Washington Post for reporting those comments. (As my colleague Molly Ball reported, there was no Nice Trump waiting in the wings, even before the Orlando massacre.)
Trump clearly sees the shooting as playing right into his hands: Although Omar Mateen, the shooter in Orlando, was a native-born American citizen, his parents came to the United States from Afghanistan. He argued Tuesday that the government is not taking the threat from terror seriously enough, and he blasted Hillary Clinton’s call to allow 65,000 Syrian refugees into the country, which he pointed out would amount to a 550 percent increase over the current target of 10,000.
“How does this kind of immigration make our life better in this country? How does it do it?” he said. “We’ll fix it.”
In another peculiar moment in the speech, Trump read the full lyrics of Al Wilson’s classic “The Snake,” framing it as a parable about immigration in what has become an occasional set piece in his rallies. He also once again complained that American Muslims were failing to report terrorists in their midst. “People knew that bad thing were going to happen, and they didn’t report,” he said. “We have to have people report.”
While many Republican leaders distanced themselves from Trump’s views on Muslims, his comments have especially earned Obama’s ire. Trump, for his part, seemed to be delighted to have a chance to swing at the president. Of course, Trump went through the motions of attacking Hillary Clinton, repeatedly calling her “Crooked Hillary” and enlisting the senator from Vermont to his cause: “We have a woman, Hillary Clinton, she’s got had judgment. Bernie Sanders said she can’t be president because she’s got bad judgment.” He called on the Clinton Foundation to return $25 million from Saudi Arabia. He insisted she couldn’t be winning women, despite poll results that indicate it is so. (It was a rare instance of Trump ignoring polls. At another point in the evening, he bragged, “I think I've made polling a very important thing.”)
But it was attacking Obama that Trump really seemed to relish. “I watched Obama today, and he was more angry at me than he was a the shooter,” he smirked. Later, he added, “I would have been very happy had Obama been a great president. I’m a Republican, I’m a conservative, but had he been a great president I would have been happy, most of the people in this room would have been happy. But you know, he’s been one hell of a lousy president.”
Trump’s strange claim about soldiers stealing money came in the midst of a spiel on Iraq, in which he noted, correctly, that Hillary Clinton had backed the invasion and claimed, falsely, that he had opposed it from the start. His argument against foreign interventions (except to seize foreign oil, by what processes he has never quite explained) set up his biggest applause line of the night.
“We spent probably spent $4 trillion over the last 15 years in the Middle East. We build a school, it gets blown up. We build it again and again and again,” he said. “If we want to build a school in Greensboro, or a school in Brooklyn, in Los Angeles, we have no money. We’re flat broke!”
Although these passages elicited warm reactions, others seem to baffle the crowd. Since Orlando, Trump has adopted a talking point about gay rights, arguing that the U.S. is too cozy with Muslim countries with repressive and barbaric policies toward gay people. It’s a clever way to deepen his argument against Muslim immigration—but it’s perhaps too clever for a Republican electorate that is growing more friendly to LGBT rights but isn’t quite ready to wildly cheer them.
“With our weakness, it’s going to get much worse before it gets much better. Since 9/11, the United States had admitted half a million immigrants from countries where being gay is punishable by death,” Trump said. The crowd shifted uneasily. A moment later, he said of Clinton, “She’s no friend of LGBT Americans.” There was a smattering of applause.
Trump has occasionally used teleprompters over the last few days, part of an effort to stay on message. Most reviews of those speeches have found them to be flat and listless. Trump eschewed the teleprompter on Tuesday (and mocked Clinton for using one), though he mentioned that he had notes to read from a couple of times. Whatever the notes said, they didn’t seem to give him much structure. It was a classic Trump speech: meandering and elliptical, touching on a theme, then darting away only to return to it 15 minutes later. Inexplicably, he spent several minutes recapping his prowess in the Republican primary, settling scores with Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Charles Krauthammer, and debate moderators. Trump isn’t pivoting to the general election; he’s wistfully looking back at the primary.
That impulse is understandable. In the primaries, Trump was solidly in control and regularly validated by electoral wins. The general election has been more of a slog so far. His relationship with the press has frayed as reporters give him closer scrutiny. Recent polling shows him trailing Clinton. Attendance has lagged at several recent events. The Trump campaign said the Greensboro crowd numbered 9,000 to 10,000, but attendees were still slowly streaming in when Trump began speaking, a few minutes ahead of schedule, and the venue didn’t feel as packed as when Bernie Sanders spoke in the same space—in September.
Only a few protestors interrupted the event, though the scene outside was more chaotic. Venders hawked shirts saying “Trump That Bitch,” “Hillary for Prison 2016,” and “Hillary Sucks, but Not Like Monica.” Meanwhile, protestors sparred with hundreds of police (and counter-protesting Trump backers) outside the venue, and several were arrested.
But Trump, inside, was serene and optimistic.
“You’re going to beg me, ‘Mr. President, please, we’re winning too much, we can’t stand it. A little less winning, Mr. President.’ I’m going to say, ‘There’s no way we’re going do that.” Whatever your view on the winning portion, the rest of the scenario rings true: So far, Trump is unwilling to heed any entreaties to change course.