At times, Thursday’s sortie even threatened to become an ordinary political rally for an ordinary president. The most obvious reasons for Trump to visit the Big Sky State were to stump for Matt Rosendale, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in the fall, and to whip up excitement about the economy, which is in its best shape in years. These are the bread and butter of typical politicians.
It might be backwards to say that Trump was there to campaign for Rosendale, and more accurate to say he was there to campaign against Senator Jon Tester, the state’s incumbent Democrat. Tester incurred Trump’s wrath when he led the public charge against the nomination of Admiral Ronny Jackson, the president’s personal physician, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. As Tester revealed, there were years of allegations of misconduct against Jackson, and the doctor eventually withdrew his nomination.
The strange thing about Trump blaming Tester for Jackson’s fall is that the president acknowledged he himself deserves a great deal of the blame.
“I feel guilty. I said, ‘Hey, doc, why don't you run the VA? You're a leader. You’re admired,’” Trump recalled. “He said, ‘If you ask, I will do it,’ but he didn't really want to do it. I sort of feel guilty about this whole thing. Because what happened is, he said, ‘Sir, if you would like me to do it, I'll do it.’ It wasn’t what he had in mind. I put him into the world of politics. How vicious is the world?”
But no matter: “Jon Tester said things about him that were horrible and weren't true,” Trump insisted. He railed at Tester for supporting Democratic Party leaders, voting against tax cuts, voting against Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination, opposing Trump’s travel ban, and various other sins, real or imagined. (In an off-key moment, warm-up act Donald Trump Jr., a wealthy New Yorker, warned that Tester’s donors were “New York money.”)
What role Trump will play in the midterm elections remains to be seen. Typically, a congressional candidate might want a president of his party to stump for him, but this is not an easy calculation for Republicans in 2018. On the one hand, Trump remains extremely popular with members of the GOP; on the other, he remains extremely unpopular with the electorate overall.
Tester, the Democrat, opted to take an aloof approach to the incursion on his home soil. Before the rally, the Tester campaign took out ads in newspapers welcoming Trump and listing 16 bills sponsored by Tester that Trump has signed. When, during the rally, Trump bragged about signing the Tester-sponsored VA Accountability Act (without mentioning Tester’s role), the senator’s campaign blasted it to reporters. A post-rally statement swiped at Rosendale but didn’t mention Trump at all.
Trump also spoke at length about the economy, using a mix of real statistics (unemployment claims are indeed at a 45-year low) and bogus ones (wages are not on the rise for the first time in 18 years). As I’ve written previously, one would expect any president overseeing an economy doing as well as this one to talk about it constantly, and Trump fitfully does so, but he never manages to stay on message for long.