Montana Public Radio

In Missoula, Trump Attacks Tester, Praises Gianforte Assault

Oct 19, 2018

Shortly before sunset Thursday, President Donald Trump walked out of Air Force One in the foreground of the Bitterroot mountains and on stage in an airplane hanger in Missoula, extending his feud with Senator Jon Tester amid a call for Republican reinforcements in Congress.

“The Democrats have truly turned into an angry mob, bent on destroying anything or anyone in their path," President Trump said, "and your senator is one of them. Let me tell you, your senator, it’s disgraceful what he did.”

Trump holds Tester responsible for derailing his previous VA Secretary nominee Doctor Ronny Jackson.

Tester is the ranking Democrat on the Veterans Affairs committee that made public allegations that Jackson abused alcohol, at times while on the job. Jackson declined to defend himself in a Senate confirmation hearing.

Republicans say it was character assassination and liken it to the recent debate over sexual misconduct allegations against supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“That’s really why I’m here,” Trump said.

The crowd cheers President Trump during a campaign rally in Missoula, MT, Oct. 18, 2018.
Credit Josh Burnham / MTPR

The president’s historic third visit to Montana in four months took place in an airplane hagner where thousands gathered wearing merchandise branded with Trump’s campaign slogan and name.

Trump praised the size of the crowd there to see him. He attacked potential Democratic presidential challenges in 2020, and riffed on the accomplishments he says his administration has achieved over his two years in office.

“We are standing up for your values, we are standing up for Montana, and we are proudly standing up for our great national anthem," Trump said. "But to continue this incredible momentum I need you to get your friends, get your family, get your neighbors, get your co-workers and get out and vote for Greg Gianforte and Matt Rosendale, these are great people.”

Trump called on both of Montana’s Republican candidates to join him on stage.

U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale speaks during a campaign rally with President Trump in Missoula, MT, Oct. 18. 2018.
Credit Josh Burnham / MTPR

Senate candidate Matt Rosendale has defined his campaign by pledging to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise, to "Make America Great Again," a message that gave the president a 20 point win here in 2016.

“President Trump deserves a senator from Montana that will support his Supreme Court nominees, not oppose them 100 percent of the time, like Jon Tester has done,” Rosendale said.

Trump called Rosendale a “successful” and “really respectable guy.”

Trump endorsed Montana’s incumbent Congressman Greg Gianforte, who is running against Democrat Kathleen Williams. While the Senate race is being closely watched across the country, the contest for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House is less high-profile.

Gianforte's comments were short.

“Let me just say, on behalf of all of Montana, Mr. President, thank you for giving us hope, again,” he said.

The crowd cheered as Trump praised Gianforte’s assault of a reporter last spring, saying anyone that can do a bodyslam is his kind of guy.

Trump’s speech wandered between the hallmarks of his presidency and campaign but always returned to what he framed as a looming threat of danger if his party lost power in D.C.

Greg Gianforte helps warm the crowd up before President Trump arrives at a Missoula, MT campaign rally, Oct. 18, 2018.
Credit Josh Burnham / Montana Public Radio

"The choice could not be more clear," Trump said, "Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs.”

After the rally I met Janus Zohner from Boulder. She stood staring at Air Force One on the tarmac as the crowd cleared out of the aircraft hanger. She said she’d never been involved in politics before Trump.

“I want to now," she said. "Now I know that there is someone out there who believes in the United States of America, who wants it great, and who gives me hope for the future of my children and grandchildren. I want the wall. I want the debt to go away. I want him to continue supporting the military. I really believe that he’ll probably nominate two more Supreme Court justices.”

Zohner says her favorite part about Trump rallies, and she’s been to two now, is the laughter he brings to them, like when he teases Gianforte about body slamming a journalist.

“This is the way he communicates with people,” Daniel Conger says.

Conger drove over from Spokane for to see Trump.

“This is it. Roosevelt had the fireside chats. He has the rally. The quintessential Trump rally," Conger said. "People are gonna think about this 40 years from now and they're going to say,  ‘I was at one of those things.’ This is it. This is the way he talks to people. The Trump rally. This is his base. And I wanted to be a part of that, because I do support him.”

The Trump family is coming back to Montana next week, when the president’s eldest son will stump for Matt Rosendale in what’s billed as a two-day bus tour.

Recent polls call this year’s Senate race a toss-up, some political forecasts give Tester a slight edge. Celebrity appearances on behalf of candidates create new media impressions for free in what will be the most expensive Senate race in Montana history. More than $45 million has already been spent by the candidates and outside groups supporting them.