President Trump stoked "lock her up" chants against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during a campaign rally in her state Saturday, a little more than a week after law enforcement officials announced they had disrupted a domestic terrorism plot to kidnap the Democrat.
The moment came as Trump was railing against Whitmer's coronavirus restrictions, the same issue that prompted right-wing extremists to target her.
"Get your governor to open up your state," he bellowed into the cold evening at the Muskegon County Airport. "And get your schools open!" When a loud chant of "lock her up!" erupted from the bundled-up crowd crammed together around the stage, Trump agreed — "Lock ’em all up," he said, smiling.
Fourteen men have been charged with plotting against Whitmer, one of the most alarming cases to surface amid growing fears about domestic terrorism. Trump urged his supporters to "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" in an April tweet, and he continues to goad the most radical members of his political base while downplaying the danger to the governor.
"So, I guess they said she was threatened," Trump said, as if to imply he didn't quite believe it. "And she blamed me!"
Whitmer reacted to Trump's comments with alarm. "This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans," she tweeted. "It needs to stop."
Trump's comments came as he is running out of time to salvage his sagging reelection campaign. Instead of broadening his message to win over voters who have soured on his performance as president, he's airing conspiracy theories and personal grievances while basking in the adulation of crowds at near-daily rallies.
He spoke in Michigan and Wisconsin on Saturday evening, and on Sunday he's heading to Orange County for a fundraiser and Nevada for another rally. Trump plans to visit Arizona, another battleground state where he is behind in polls, for two campaign events Monday.
"You think I'm doing this for my health?" Trump said about his whirlwind schedule. "I'm not doing this for my health."
Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the former vice president, has kept a lower profile, and he did not hold any events Saturday. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, has also been grounded after two people on her campaign plane tested positive for the coronavirus. She has subsequently tested negative and is expected to visit Florida on Monday, the first day of in-person voting in that battleground state.
During Trump's first rally Saturday in Muskegon, a small lakefront community northwest of Grand Rapids, he largely ditched the teleprompter and leaned hard into a number of divisive cultural issues, railing about the "radical left" and "cancel culture."
He blasted efforts to remove Confederate statues and alter American history curricula to include a more unflinching examination of slavery and the Jim Crow era, characterizing the moves as part of a broader "crusade against American history" and "our heritage" that he blamed on Democrats.
He intentionally mispronounced the name of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee elected in 2018, and told the crowd that the Minnesota congresswoman "does not love our country too much" and in fact "hates" it. It was the first of three such references to Omar, which he repeated later in Wisconsin. Yet moments later, Trump blasted Democrats for their supposed intolerance, citing efforts to "cancel" more traditional renderings of American history.
"These are not the tactics of a respectable political movement," Trump said. He then claimed falsely that Democrats wanted to remove the Jefferson Memorial and "blow up" Mt. Rushmore.
He blasted Biden numerous times, telling his supporters that his opponent is "shot." Biden, he said, "never had the kind of control that you have to have to be president."
As usual, Trump offered nothing resembling a policy agenda for a second term. Yet he promised that his never-defined plan "will make the state better in every single way than it was before," while "Biden's plan will crush Michigan."
In Michigan and later Wisconsin, Trump largely avoided the main issues of importance to voters. He didn't talk about healthcare at all and only briefly mentioned the stagnant economy and the pandemic, blasting Democrats for imposing what he called "unscientific lockdowns."
"You've got to open your state up. You've got to open it up," Trump said in Janesville, Wis., at his second rally.
Coronavirus cases have been surging in Wisconsin. The state health department said Friday that the seven-day average of new cases had exceeded 3,000 for the first time since the pandemic began.
Trump was more animated by foreign threats. He claimed falsely that his promised wall on the border with Mexico was almost finished, and he railed against refugees. He said that allowing in more people, as Democrats support, would be "opening the floodgates to radical Islamic terrorism" and that "your state and your country will be overrun and overwhelmed."
Even as his speech veered into dark territory, Trump boasted about how much fun his rallies are for supporters. He grinned as the crowds chanted, "We love you."
The president joked that he may not leave office for "four years, eight years, 12 years, 16," far beyond the constitutional limit of two terms in office: "Now the story with the fake news will be, 'He is a fascist!'"
There's no sign, however, that his breakneck travel pace is boosting his reelection prospects, and some of his comments may be actively undermining them. For example, polls show women heavily favoring Biden, yet Trump directed most of his attacks Saturday at women, including Harris, Whitmer, Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — he called her "Pocahontas" — who also was in Wisconsin on Saturday, campaigning as a Biden surrogate.
Reps. Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are two of his most frequent targets. Trump also mocked NBC journalists Savannah Guthrie, whose questioning got under his skin at a town hall Thursday night, and Kristen Welker, who is to moderate the final presidential debate Thursday.
Trump insisted in both states that his reelection prospects are good. Vice President Mike Pence, addressing a crowd in Reading, Pa., earlier Saturday, reminded voters that the polls showed Trump down in 2016, too. In some polls, “we were losing by a lot, some we were losing by a little. That was the whole range,” Pence said.
In a call coordinated by the Trump campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) chided Biden for not responding to a New York Post story and unfounded allegations of his misuse of his authority as vice president to help his son’s foreign business interests. The story is based on emails that Trump's lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he obtained from a laptop left at a Delaware repair shop last year.
The Republicans also chastised social media companies Twitter and Facebook for, as they put it, suppressing the story.
“For years, Silicon Valley censorship has been a problem and it’s been getting worse and worse," Cruz said. "Big Tech billionaires more and more have been willing to silence, to shadow ban, to throttle views they disagree with and censor the American people.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.