COLUMBUS — Donald Trump largely backed away from his dayslong feud with John Kasich in a rally Monday in the Ohio governor’s backyard.
But the billionaire presidential candidate stood by his support for the use of waterboarding on suspected terrorists and his controversial insistence that some people — likely a reference to Muslims — cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. And Trump reiterated his support for some kind of “list” tracking Syrian refugees and his use of the term “anchor babies.”
In a 58-minute speech before as many as 14,000 cheering people, Trump spent only a few moments criticizing presidential rival Kasich, whose campaign he recently battled on Twitter. At the rally, Trump, who continues to lead national polls for the GOP nomination, briefly mentioned the Ohio governor’s low polling figures.
“Your governor is only 2 (percent). What happened?” Trump said of a recent national poll, to a smattering of boos.
It was unclear whether they were directed at Trump or Kasich. Then, pronouncing the governor’s name “Kasitch,” Trump said: “I heard he’s dropping out” — a claim Kasich has refuted.
Trump instead spent much of his speech reiterating controversial claims and stances, to roars of approval and widespread booing of subjects of Trump’s disdain.
Most recently, Trump has taken heat for insisting he remembers seeing people in New Jersey celebrating on 9/11, implying that Muslims were cheering the devastation and death caused by terrorist attacks. The claim has been widely debunked.
Fellow outsider candidate Dr. Ben Carson had also said he remembered seeing coverage of such celebrations, but his campaign later backed off the comments, telling ABC News he was “mistaken.”
But Trump stands by his memory, saying Monday, “I saw. I saw it. … Thousands of people believe me, because they saw it.”
Then, he read an excerpt from a Washington Post story from a week after the 9/11 attacks, which said authorities had questioned people for allegedly “celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.”
Still, the reporters who wrote the story say they never were able to verify the allegations, according to a follow-up on the story Sunday by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog. If the situation took place, it likely involved only a handful of people, not the thousands Trump originally claimed to have seen.
Some who agreed with Trump, saying they remembered such videos, later realized they had confused the moment with video of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank celebrating on 9/11.
ISIS, refugee ‘lists’
Trump on Sunday had said he’d bring back waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique, especially among members of the Islamic State group of terrorists. He reiterated that stance Monday, to cheers. Two men toward the front of the crowd pumped their fists.
“On the other side, they chop off our young people’s heads, and they put them on a stick,” Trump said. “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. … And I would approve more than that. And don’t kid yourself, folks. It works.”
Trump made headlines, and drew rebukes from Kasich and other candidates, for saying he would create a “database” to track Muslims in the wake of the Paris attacks. He has backed off the idea, but reiterated the general concept in his Columbus speech.
“We have to create lists,” he said. “We have the refugees coming in, and we have to create lists.”
The remark drew yells from two men wearing Santa hats, who were escorted from the venue.
“You can get them the hell out,” Trump said.
Trump said if more Parisians had guns, the attack might not have happened — a concept greeted by one of the night’s biggest roars.
“We’ve become soft. We’ve become weak. We’ve become a laughingstock all over the world,” Trump said.
‘Probably not a good idea’
Other GOP candidates have campaigned in Ohio. But for Kasich, Trump’s appearance offered a direct challenge to a central component of the Ohio governor’s campaign. Kasich can win Ohio in 2016, he says, delivering what has historically been the most important swing state to a GOP victory. Kasich had backed up his claims by leading presidential polls in Ohio, but last month Trump took the lead.
And the crowd of cheering Republicans who greeted Trump on Monday calls into question Kasich’s insistence that only more measured ideas and experienced leadership can galvanize Ohio voters.
Just an hour before the debate, Trump took the latest in his string of shots at Kasich.
“Going to Ohio, home of one of the worst presidential candidates in history–Kasich. Can’t debate, loves #ObamaCare–dummy!” Trump tweeted.
But he backed off during his speech Monday after a talk with Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, who said he advised Trump against trashing a popular governor in his home state.
“He said he’d not go as hard on him as he had in the past,” said Borges, a Kasich supporter. “None of that stuff is going to help us carry Ohio. We have to carry Ohio if we want to win this election. … The path to the nomination and the path to endearing yourself to Ohioans is, it’s probably not a good idea to attack our governor.”
Still, Kasich’s ongoing war with Trump offered something he needs to boost his campaign to prominence nationally: attention. So the Kasich campaign offered two “prebuttals” to Trump’s speech, hoping Ohio politicos could assure national reporters that Kasich’s brand of governance is what Buckeye voters want — not Trump’s outbursts.
A PAC supporting Kasich joined in, flying a plane around the convention center with a banner reading: “Ohioans can’t trust Trump.”
And when Trump declined to engage, Kasich’s campaign sent out an email declaring “TRUMP BACKS DOWN.” Chief Strategist John Weaver said the billionaire “left with a whimper.”
“I can’t explain why he personally attacks me,” Kasich told the Detroit Free Press earlier Monday on a campaign visit to Michigan. “I’m not interested in attacking him personally. Some of the thing we’ve heard, from Muslim database or registration, to shipping 11.5 million people out of the country, these are just ideas that hold no water whatsoever. I don’t do anything based on personal stuff, but I do do things based on issues.”
‘Speaks everything that we think’
The thousands who streamed in to see Trump included Ohioans who said they like Kasich, but question whether he has what it takes to become president. And Trump does, they said.
“I see some strengths in Kasich personally,” said Greg Brown of Williamsburg, in Clermont County. “But he doesn’t seem to be factoring in right now to the top spot. And a lot of Ohioans are upset with him.”
Kasich has approval ratings in the 60s, but Brown said he’s heard people in Southwest Ohio complaining about Statehouse Republicans’ cuts in state money shared with local governments.
“He’s an American. He speaks everything that we think,” said Sharon Smith of Granville, in central Ohio.
And Trump’s more incendiary remarks and factual errors don’t bother her, she said.
“He’s a human being,” Smith said.
James Harris of Columbus and his friends came to see Trump because of the spectacle more than the billionaire’s politics.
“Why are any of us here?” Harris said. “You want to see the thing that everyone wants to see.”
Not all who came to downtown Columbus for Trump’s event were showing support. About 100 protesters rallied outside the convention center yelling, “O-H-I-O, Donald Trump has got to go.” Others chanted “black lives matter” and “my body, my choices.” Many appeared to be protesting Trump’s strong stances on immigration with signs such as “Muslims are welcome here” and “Soy Inmigrante.”
Kasich and Trump have been openly warring for about a month. The two clashed in back-to-back debates after a stagnating Kasich decided to call out what he calls “crazy” ideas, such as Trump’s proposal for deporting millions of people who are staying in the U.S. illegally.
Contributing: Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press. Follow Chrissie Thompson and Jessica Balmert on Twitter:[email protected] and @jbalmert
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