President Donald Trump characterized himself as a law-and-order president in a characteristically disordered campaign speech in Latrobe Thursday evening – a visit that likely heralds a busy fall election season in western Pennsylvania.
“Joe Biden wants to surrender your jobs to China … he wants to surrender your nation to the radical left-wing mob,” Trump told an enthusiastic crowd at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
Biden “is a puppet of the socialists, Marxists, and the cop-hating extremists,” Trump said -- just days after Biden made a speech in Pittsburgh that declared “rioting is not protesting” and should be prosecuted. But Biden also denounced police brutality during that speech, while Trump on Thursday touted his ties to law enforcement.
“I will keep your jobs in America and I’ll bring rioters, looters, violent extremists, anarchists – we will bring them to justice," he said.
Trump repeatedly touched on those themes – hostility toward China and the denunciation of violence in some American cities amid protests of police brutality – in his hour-and-a-half long address. Trump also touched repeatedly on the coronavirus, in between making asides about such favorite topics as his 2016 election win, grousing about impeachment, and blasting the press.
“We’ve done a great job on it,” Trump said of the virus, whose death toll is closing in on 200,000 Americans. “We don’t get the credit. … We’re rounding that turn, and vaccines are coming along great.”
But he complained that “You have a governor that has you shut down” – despite the crowd of thousands assembled before him, and the fact one of his top coronavirus response officials praised the state’s handling of the virus earlier that day.
Much of the crowd itself appeared to be unmasked, and Trump himself seemed to take the virus more seriously at some times than others.
“I can look at that guy and he’ll catch it,” Trump said of the disease’s contagiousness at one point. But he also joked about the virus’ upside, noting that he was holding rallies in airplane hangers rather than arenas due to the pandemic: "But in certain ways I like this better. … I get off the plane, I make a speech, I get the hell out of here.”
Inevitably for western Pennslyvania, the issue of fracking for natural gas arose. Trump said that Biden would ban fracking – a line of attack Republicans have used repeatedly since Biden said in Pittsburgh this week that “I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”
“He said many times … ‘no fracking,’” Trump asserted Thursday.
Biden has tried to steer a middle course on energy issues during the campaign. His campaign platform pledges only to prohibit new fracking on federal lands – a position that would have little impact on the private operations most common in Pennsylvania –while promising to lay groundwork for transitioning away from fossil fuel. In debates, Biden has sometimes overstated that position and running mate Kamala Harris has been a stauncher foe of drilling. But fact-checkers agree that his policy proposals fall well short of an outright ban, and a president’s ability to ban fracking is limited in any case.
Trump himself overstated the case for fracking, claiming at one point that “If you don’t do fracking in Pennsylvania, 900,000 jobs and your energy bills will triple,” and later increasing the apparent number of jobs at stake to 940,000. It’s not clear where those numbers came from: Economists put the number of Pennsylvania fracking jobs at one-thirtieth that number.
Other attacks on Biden arguably struck closer to home. Trump correctly noted that as a Senator Biden had voted – along with a bipartisan majority in Congress – to authorize the Iraq War, and that as vice president he opposed the Obama administration’s successful strike on Osama bin Laden. He also alluded to statements Biden made hailing China’s economic rise as “a positive development.”
Trump made credible claims to his administration's own foreign policy successes, like helping to broker a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – “the first Middle East peace deal in decades.”
Meanwhile Trump revisited criticisms of voting by mail, which has already become a flashpoint of controversy in the upcoming election. “These mail-in ballots are a disgrace,” he said, just before urging his supporters to fill them out and then track the progress of their ballots.
Trump suggested that his supporters vote in-person on Election Day if their mail-in ballots weren’t tabulated. Some observers heard that as echoing statements Trump made urging voters in North Carolina to vote twice, though it is not clear that’s what Trump intended, and in any case state voting procedures would bar it. Polling place officials will know who has requested mail-in ballots, and those on that list would only be permitted to complete a provisional ballot, which would be counted later only if the mail-in ballot is not be received.
Still, other remarks Trump made did suggest a potential for election chaos. While decrying the delays that can be involved counting mail-in ballots, he said “I want to see the results of the election on Nov. 3” – an unlikely prospect in Pennsylvania and other states, where it may take days to fully tabulate mail-in ballots.
Some Democrats are already worried that because their voters appear more likely to vote by mail, the Election Night results might show Biden with far fewer votes than were actually cast for him. Trump, they fear, could use the days spent counting mail-in ballots to discredit the election’s outcome.
In any case, it seems clear that Trump’s visit – and Biden’s earlier this week – betoken a fall of stepped-up campaign activity in western Pennsylvania, acritical region in a critical swing state. Both Biden and Trump have said they plan to return to the area on Sept. 11, with visits to the Flight 93 Memorial site.