HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Around 400 miles from Washington, D.C., Congress and investigations into ties between his presidential campaign and Russia, President Donald Trump found comfort Thursday night in Huntington.
It was there his supporters packed the Big Sandy Superstore Arena to hear the president speak about how to “Make America Great Again” and take aim at opponents.
“I am thrilled to be back in the very, very beautiful state of West Virginia,” Trump said in front of 9,000 people. “I am proud to stand before you and celebrate the hard-working people that are the absolute backbone of America.”
Despite a declining national approval rating, Trump remains popular in the Mountain State; according to Gallup, 60 percent of West Virginians approve of Trump’s job performance. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 42 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Much of the president’s speech was similar to one of his campaign rally as a presidential candidate; he mentioned protecting the border, creating manufacturing jobs, protecting the coal industry and repealing and replacing former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“Congress must get to work and deliver Americans the great health care that they deserve, the great repeal and replace they’ve been talking about for seven years,” Trump said to roaring applause. “Incredible. One vote. Incredible, but we’ll get it.”
The U.S. Senate’s “skinny repeal” was rejected in a vote last week. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine voted against the proposal, as did Democratic senators including Sen. Joe Manchin.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who was at Thursday’s rally, voted for the legislation.
“Thank you, Shelley,” Trump said.
The president mentioned a recent analysis from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis regarding GDP growth during the first quarter of the year. While the national growth was mixed and at an average of 2.6 percent, West Virginia’s was at 3 percent during the same time period.
“I wonder how that happened,” Trump said. “West Virginia, you’re leading the average! When was the last time you heard that, West Virginia? You’re leading the country’s average.”
Texas led the nation with 3.9 percent growth.
The president also mentioned the growth of the coal industry, noting the end of “the war on beautiful clean coal,” rollback of regulations and increase in coal exports.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, coal mining employment has increased by 1,100 jobs since November 2016. Reuters reported on July 28 coal exports have increased by 60 percent because of demand in Europe and Asia.
Bob Murray, chief executive officer of Murray Energy Corp., said Trump is a pro-worker leader.
“He’s a hero for the working people and he deeply cares about them,” he said. “That clearly came out in his message. I know the gentleman, and he does genuinely care about working people.”
Trump’s address was overshadowed beforehand by two things: the continuing investigation into his presidential campaign and Gov. Jim Justice.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Thursday afternoon special counsel Robert Mueller is using a grand jury in his investigation into Russia’s role in the presidential election and possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump’s campaign.
The New York Times confirmed Mueller has issued subpoenas to receive documents, some of which relate to the work of former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Trump said Democrats are pushing the “made-up” story because the party lacks a message.
“It just makes them feel better when they have nothing else to talk about,” the president said. “What the prosecutor should be looking at is Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails. What they should be looking at: the paid Russian speeches and owned Russian companies, or let them look at the uranium she sold that is now in the hands of very angry Russians.”
Trump’s comments were met with cheers and chants of “Lock her up!”
“Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign,” Trump said. “There never were.”
Trump teased Thursday morning a “very big announcement” would be made at the rally. That revelation was released prior to the rally, when The New York Times reported West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice would leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican.
Justice walked on stage to join Trump, whom the governor considers “a really dear friend.”
“This man and myself are not politicians,” Justice said. “We ran to get something done. We ran and gave up part of our lives. We ran because we want nothing. We ran as our founding fathers did years and years ago, to serve.”
Justice said he felt Democrats in the West Virginia Legislature walked away from him during this year’s legislative session.
“Today, I tell you as West Virginians, I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor,” the governor said to applause.
Protesters greeted Trump fans inside and outside Big Sandy Superstore Arena. Thirteen organizations held a protest across the street prior to and after the address.
“Hell no! Not my president!” one chant went.
“Build a wall, we’ll tear it down!” a second call went.
A few protesters were involved in an altercation inside the venue before law enforcement arrived.
2018 Republican Senate candidates U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and former coal miner Bo Copley were seen inside the venue. Jenkins held a small event before Trump’s address.
U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va. and state Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt were also seen at the event, with Leonhardt speaking to the audience beforehand.
Thursday’s rally was Trump’s second visit to West Virginia in a two-week span. He spoke July 24 at the Boy Scout National Jamboree, in which he raised concerns after making multiple political arguments in front of the 40,000 Scouts, leaders and volunteers. Boy Scouts of America Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh later apologized to those upset with the president’s rhetoric.