HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – President Donald Trump spent the first 25 minutes of a Friday night campaign rally explaining and defending his decision to endorse the Republican establishment's pick for the Alabama Senate race.
Then, he basically took it all back.
"I might have made a mistake. I'll be honest, I might have made a mistake," Trump told a crowd of several thousand gathered at the Von Braun Center that cheered much louder for him than for the candidate he was there to support, Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed earlier this year to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
If Strange loses a Republican primary runoff election Tuesday, the president said that the media will accuse him of being "unable to pull his candidate across the line" and cast the loss as a "total embarrassment." Strange is polling behind rival Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who is popular with evangelical Christians and many Trump supporters.
"And, by the way, both good men. Both good men," the president said of the two Republican candidates. "If his opponent wins, I'm going to be here campaigning like hell for him. But, I have to say this . . . Luther will definitely win."
Prominent Republican leaders aggressively lobbied the president to travel to Alabama to campaign with Strange, something that Trump himself said was a great risk. He was greeted by a full house of supporters, many of whom stayed on their feet during the entire rally, laughing at his jokes and cheering his attacks on political and foreign adversaries.
The president's rambling speech lasted nearly 90 minutes. He repeatedly cursed, mocked the leader of North Korea, jokingly threatened to fire a Cabinet member who endorsed Moore, called on professional football team owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem, promised to build a new "see-through wall" on the southern border, called allegations of Russian interference in the election a "hoax," accused unions of protecting "sadists" who abuse elderly veterans, and repeatedly relived the 2016 election.
Strange's campaign organized the rally and corralled reporters in a pen far from the thousands of rally-goers – many of whom said in interviews outside the arena that they were there to see the president and planned to vote for Moore on Tuesday, not Strange. Four Moore supporters stationed outside with campaign signs were absolutely giddy that so many passersby told them that they planned to vote for Moore.
Strange took the stage just before Trump and proudly put on a red "Make America Great Again" hat. Up in the stands, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan remarked: "I don't know who this guy is. I'm here for Trump."
"Are you ready to support our president tonight?" Strange asked. From the stands, a young Trump supporter shouted back: "You suck!"
Strange rattled off many of the buzzwords that were central to Trump's unexpected win last year: ". . . fight the establishment . . . make America great again . . . build the wall . . . create jobs . . . historic election." Strange told the crowd that the president needs to keep him in the Senate to "stand up to" Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose political action committee has spent millions of dollars on TV ads supporting Strange and attacking Moore. The crowd booed McConnell.
"Even our own Republicans, so-called conservatives, are standing in the way of the president's agenda," Strange said. "That's why he's here to support me, because he knows that I've got his back."
After speaking for fewer than four minutes at his own rally, Strange called the president to the stage as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" blared. The crowd clapped and screamed, and the two politicians embraced. As Strange left the stage, the president smiled and pointed at him.
"I love this place," Trump said. "You know, we set every record in Alabama. I love Alabama, it's special."
The crowd began to chant: "USA! USA! USA!"
Behind the president was a massive U.S. flag and two VIP boxes draped with patriotic bunting and filled with prominent Strange supporters seated under signs that read: "Stand with Trump" and "Vote for Luther." The president called the senator a "really great person" who "knows the true source of America's strength – it's God, it's family and it's country."
Trump praised Alabama for sheltering "17 million people" displaced by recent hurricanes, a number that seemed high given that the state has fewer than 5 million residents and that nearby Florida has 20.6 million residents. He promised that the country will "win all the time," just like Alabama's beloved football teams – and he repeated his attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"We can't have madmen out there, shooting rockets all over the place. And by the way: Rocketman should have been handled a long time ago," Trump said, as the crowd erupted into its loudest cheers of the night. ". . . This shouldn't be handled now, but I'm going to handle it, because we have to handle it. Little rocketman."
Trump ominously warned that North Korea could explode a "massive weapon" over the Pacific Ocean, resulting in "tremendous, tremendous calamity where the plume goes." Then he told everyone not to worry about that.
"Maybe something gets worked out and maybe it doesn't, but I can tell you one thing: You are protected. Okay? You are protected," Trump said. "Nobody's going to mess with our people."
Trump shifted back to the Senate race, saying that he had approved of some of his friends endorsing Strange's rival and joking that he might fire members of his administration who did so. Hours before the rally, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced he was supporting Moore.
Trump shared a "quick, crazy story" about health-care reform that he said explains why he likes Strange. But first he name-dropped McCain, prompting loud boos from the crowd, and said that he might have moved to Alabama or Kentucky if he lost the 2016 election because "it's nice to go to where people love you and you love them." He added that he has accomplished a lot as president but doesn't get credit for it.
"We have a Supreme Court justice, Judge [Neil M.] Gorsuch, who will save – how about a thing called your Second Amendment," the president said. "Right? Okay, remember that? If Crooked Hillary got elected, you would not have a Second Amendment, believe me. You'd be handing in your rifles. You'd be saying: 'Here, here they are.'"
The president then stepped away from the lectern to act out how his supporters would have handed over their rifles to Democrat Hillary Clinton, who never called for rounding up all of the rifles in the country. Trump smirked and shrugged as the crowd started to chant: "Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!" A small group of young men sitting close to the stage, dressed in blazers and red campaign hats, kept the beat by pumping their fists into the air.
"You gotta speak to Jeff Sessions about that," Trump said.
He eventually returned to this quick, crazy story. Basically, the president said, several Republican lawmakers would consider voting for the legislation only if the president had dinner with their various relatives.
"Pictures all night, everything," Trump said. "Brutal. Brutal. You know what that is, folks, right? It's called brutality."
But Trump says that when he called Strange, the senator promised his vote and didn't attach any strings – stunning the president.
"I said: 'Do I have to come and meet you some place? Do I have to have dinner with your family?' I think his wife, by the way, is fantastic, but I said: 'Do I have to have dinner with you and your wife?' [Strange answered:] 'No, sir, you don't have to have anything,'" said Trump, who was now doing a much bigger favor for Strange by speaking at this rally.
This, Trump said, was "the coolest thing that has happened to me in six months." Then he mentioned McCain again, inspiring another wave of boos.
Trump repeatedly claimed that Strange "doesn't know Mitch McConnell at all," despite the majority leader's heavy investment in the race. Trump said Strange is a "tough, tough cookie" who is going to "kick everyone's a–" in the Senate race.
Then the president wandered into the topic of the "dishonest" media and its obsession with his wife's shoes. Mid-sentence, Trump was back to talking about Strange's loyalty – and how this endorsement might be a mistake, although he firmly believes that Strange has a better chance than Moore of beating the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, during the special election in December. Trump repeatedly said that he expects Strange to win – but he also repeatedly said that he would back Moore if he wins.
And eventually that led to a reflection on why Trump won.
"I think we won because of the military," Trump said to cheers. "I think we won because of the vets. I think we won because of the evangelicals – I mean, take a look at that, right?"
Okay, back to Strange: Trump said that if the senator can just get out the vote, he will win and the people will have "a great senator" – and a very tall one, as Strange is 6-foot-9. The president seemed to claim that he was the one who nicknamed the senator "Big Luther."
All of a sudden, Trump summoned his chief of staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, to jump onstage and be recognized.
"Where's General? Where is he? Where is he?" Trump said. "General! Come up here. Quick! Come here, come here. Four star. Come here. Come, come, come, come."
Kelly ran onstage and shook the president's hand. Trump pulled him toward the lectern, but Kelly declined to say anything. Instead, he pointed at the president with a smile and told the audience to direct their applause to Trump, not him. He then slowly backed his way off the stage.
"He just wants to work," Trump said. "He's done a good job. Four-star Marine. That's good."
Oh, and by the way, the president said, the wall is happening.
"Believe me, folks," he said. "The wall is happening."
Trump said that there's already a wall along the border and that the administration is renovating it over the next six to seven months to be "pristine, perfect, just as good as new, although we may go a little bit higher than that, but that's okay." And Trump said that he's collecting samples for building a new wall that's "see through."
"If you can't have vision through it, you don't know who's on the other side," Trump said, later explaining that building is what he does best, though he's also pretty good at this politics thing.
Without a see-through wall, a criminal in "wonderful, wonderful" Mexico could use a catapult to throw "a hundred pounds of drugs" over the wall.
"And it lands, and it hits somebody in the head – you don't even know they're there," Trump said. "Believe it or not, this is the kind of stuff that happens. So you need to have a great wall, but it has to be see-through."
Trump praised Twitter, slammed the media, questioned pricey consultants from the "Harvard school of something," pointed to a campaign hat in the crowd, declared that "Luther is your man" and disclosed that he and Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) recently gossiped about which members of Congress are the "smart ones" and which are "the less-smart ones."
"I learned a lot," the president said. "That's a lot of knowledge."
Trump said Strange has the same "American values" as everyone in the arena that night. And that brought him to the topic of football.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's FIRED!'" Trump boomed.
As the crowd burst into cheers, the president threw his hands into the air and shook his head. For the fourth time that night, the crowd became to chant: "USA! USA! USA!"
"That's a total disrespect of our heritage," Trump said. "That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Okay? Everything that we stand for. And I know we have freedoms, and we have freedom of choice and many, many different freedoms, but you know what? It's still totally disrespectful."
Trump added that the NFL "ratings are down massively," which he attributed to his own popularity, referees "ruining the game" to impress their wives watching at home and players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. The crowd booed in agreement.
"Not the same game anymore, anyway," Trump said, before riffing on religious liberty, the Second Amendment and supporting law enforcement officers – comments that he seemed to be reading off his long-forgotten teleprompter.
"These are Alabama values – I understand the people of Alabama. I feel like I'm from Alabama, frankly," the president said. "Isn't it a little weird when a guy who lives on Fifth Avenue in the most beautiful apartment you've ever seen, comes to Alabama and Alabama loves that guy? I mean, it's crazy. It's crazy."
Trump marveled at the full arena and said that there were "thousands of people outside who can't get in." Several arena employees who were outside at the time said that a couple hundred people could not get in after the doors closed, and they tried to watch the rally on a big screen outside but there was no audio, so they left.
"Thousands," Trump said. "We've got thousands of people outside."
Oh, and Strange is a Distinguished Eagle Scout, Trump told the crowd.
Pretty soon, Trump hit his stride, and his frustrations poured out in a river of disconnected thoughts. He demanded to know why Republicans voted 61 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act when President Barack Obama was in office – "61 times," he emphasized – but suddenly don't have the guts to do it now that he's president. And he provided a full-throttle, jargon-filled defense of why Clinton won the popular vote, saying that he was fully focused on winning the electoral vote and that it would have been much easier for him to win the popular vote.
"To me, winning the popular vote is easier," Trump said. "The electoral college is actually something that I've come to respect."
He floated the idea of Clinton running again in 2020, prompting groans and boos, and mocked her for not campaigning enough in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. A few people yelled out: "Lock her up!"
"We won by a lot," the president added, calling the win "awe-inspiring."
"Oh, and by the way, folks, just in case you're like curious: No, Russia did not help me. Okay?" Trump said. "I call it the Russian hoax, one of the great hoaxes."
As the crowd laughed, the president asked: "Any Russians in the audience? Are there any Russians in the audience, please? I don't see too many Russians. I didn't see too many Russians in Pennsylvania. I didn't see too many Russians."
He called Kim a "menace," listed endorsements that Strange has received and accused CNN of turning off its cameras whenever he attacks the network.
As the president's remarks passed the one-hour mark, many of the seats in the stands became to empty, revealing large swaths of blue and gray seats. The flurry of movement in the upper-decks must have caught the president's attention because he told those gathered that the newly empty seats belonged to those who were just taking a bathroom break. He noted the "tremendous gains" in the stock market that he said have prompted business leaders who once hated him to hug and kiss him. He hinted that he would start wrapping up, but he just kept going.
He blamed problems at the Veterans Affairs medical centers on union members who wanted to protect the jobs of dangerous employees instead of patients.
"So you would have people working in the VA who were sadists, who would abuse our great, great people, our veterans – by the way, 25 years before, they would have had their a– kicked by the same person that they're abusing," Trump said. "They would have been in trouble. They would have been in trouble."
He mentioned the war on coal, pipelines, fighter jets, missile defense systems, law enforcement officers, immigrant access to welfare, "racial Islamic terrorists" and tax reform, as if quickly running through all of the talking points waiting on the teleprompters, along with anything else he wanted to say out loud.
He compared his approach to health-care reform to a boxer who keeps getting knocked out but keeps getting up to fight another round. And he threatened to revoke his endorsement of Strange if the senator did not vote for tax reform – even though he had repeatedly told those gathered that Strange would act independently in Washington.
"We are Americans, and the future belongs to us," Trump said in closing. "The future belongs to all of you – but we have got to go out and take it. We have got to go out and earn it. We have got to go out and vote. If we don't vote, it's not going to happen."