Opinion

Triumphal Trump: 'It Really Is All About Hope'

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Posted: Oct 18, 2018 12:01 AM
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Triumphal Trump: 'It Really Is All About Hope'

ERIE, Pa. -- The president appears to be in a good place.

He is standing in the catacombs of the Erie Insurance Arena, hidden from the stands directly above him, where thousands of supporters are gathered to see him in this northwest Pennsylvania industrial town. Donald Trump is the calm in the center of the storm that surrounds every move he makes during his visit here.

As the chaotic dance of advance work moves like a caffeinated waltz around him, he maintains his composure. His charm is on display as he banters with David Urban, his former Pennsylvania campaign manager, who joins Trump almost any time he heads to his home state.

Trump is also serious as he receives updates on Hurricane Michael.

Hallways and walkways and locker rooms in the subterranean part of the arena have been turned into a conference room for a business roundtable with local leaders, an elegant fundraising room for Pennsylvania candidates running to help hold his party's majorities in the House and Senate, and a black curtained-off area where he can conduct an interview with a local Erie television station and the Washington Examiner.

While White House staff members -- such as senior adviser Stephen Miller, assistant to the president Johnny DeStefano and deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters -- bustle around him, the Secret Service agents and military personnel are like stone sentinels whom everyone else artfully moves around.

When I interview just about anyone, it always involves an audio recorder. When I interview the president of the United States, it always involves at least three audio recorders. It takes only one time for a recorder to fail you before you learn to always bring a backup.

Trump laughs as I sloppily place three of them on the floor at his feet and one in my hand.

"I'm very impressed. She doesn't want to blow the interview," he says to a room full of laughter and then shakes my hand.

The president wants to know if I am staying for the speech and then notes that not only is the inside filled to the rafters but the outside is also. "They said it's the biggest. ... You know, there's 10,000 people outside that can't get in," he says of the overflow crowd about to watch him on a Jumbotron set up outside the arena.

An hour later, when I leave before his speech is over, photographer Justin Merriman and I walk outside to discover the president wasn't even remotely exaggerating. Thousands of people stand cheering Trump's final words in a festive atmosphere. Supporters wave their "Make America Great Again" hats when he hits key points that matter to them, like Steelers fans waving their Terrible Towels, all the while sending beach balls across the massive crowd.

The mood is part tailgate, part Jimmy Buffett concert.

Two years ago, when Trump made Erie one of his earliest stops after securing the Republican nomination in Cleveland, the political class laughed. It wasn't completely tone-deaf when it did; Republicans didn't win Erie.

How, the class asked, is Erie important to whatever map his team was trying to form to win the Electoral College? Republicans don't win Erie, and they don't win Pennsylvania.

And Republican candidates rarely came to Erie to ask for their vote. The last Republican presidential candidate to win Erie County was Ronald Reagan, who persuaded the residents with an aspirational economic message.

Trump, too, used that kind of message in 2016. But when analysts looked at his message, they cried racism among the voters, despite the fact that in the previous two election cycles, many of those same voters supported Barack Obama with nearly 60 percent of their votes over both John McCain and Mitt Romney.

The last sitting president to have visited Erie was George W. Bush in 2004.

This is not your grandfather's Erie. A generation ago, this town boomed in industry, and her residents were born mostly Catholic, with a union card in one hand and a registration card for the Democratic Party in the other.

It's where thousands of blue-collar kids from Pittsburgh and Cleveland and all points in between helped their parents pack up their station wagons to spend the day or the weekend or, if you were really lucky, a week on the shores of Presque Isle, their landlocked version of going to the Atlantic Ocean.

Twitter would soon light up with snarky jokes when Trump takes to the stage and says that Republican Rep. Mike Kelly wants sand for Erie's beaches, the crowd inside roaring in approval; the tourist industry is a big part of Erie's redevelopment for the future.

Erie has been on its knees for years but is working its way back thanks to a dedicated business and civic leadership community that has called this area home for generations and is working to plug the flow of job losses that hit 10,000 between 2010 and 2016.

John Persinger, the Republican candidate for mayor last year, who lost by some 1,200 votes to Democrat Joe Schember, is part of that coalition of civic leaders as CEO of the Erie Downtown Development Corporation.

Their goal: to revitalize the city of Erie.

Persinger, 37, says when he arrives Wednesday for the rally that the line stretched for four blocks "and then wrapped around the Federal Courthouse." He adds, "I've never seen anything like that."

"The crowd was very peaceful and calm and happy to stay even if they didn't get in," he says.

"They are filled with hope," says Trump when he again mentions the people waiting outside.

Persinger doesn't disagree. "They really are," he says. "This is a town that has seen the effects for a generation of boarded-up homes, people leaving and shuttered businesses. They feel the change, and the president does a good job of emphasizing that."

Our interview goes for 20 minutes, far longer than his aides want, but he doesn't stop, and I don't stop asking. He discusses the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which Democrat he'd like to face in the 2020 presidential election, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Hillary Clinton, Kanye West, closing a trade deal with China and bringing the country back together.

On Kavanaugh, he is triumphant about how he was able to get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed despite the circus that surrounded the process, saying any other Republican president would have "abandoned" Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court nominee.

"I felt that it would be a horrible thing not to go through with this," he says. "The easier path would have been -- you know, we have some good people (on the Supreme Court shortlist); they're all amazing people. But I felt it would be so horrible and so unfair to him. I thought it would have been destructive; it would have been terrible."

He was also clearly so incensed by the treatment of the judge during the Senate confirmation hearings that he "didn't even think about going the other way."

He adds: "This is a person that actually, when I chose him, I said this would be very easy. He's led an exemplary life. I mean, he's never had a problem in his life ... all of a sudden, this stuff came up at the end and totally, you know, uncorroborated."

On China, Trump is confident they would strike a deal with the U.S. on trade, contending that his policies had pushed Beijing into a corner by weakening its economy.

"I think China will ultimately make a deal," he says. "They want to talk right now ... China is not doing well, as you know."

The administration announced that it has tentative plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping late next month.

Trump claims he didn't want to put the pressure on China but was obligated to do so in response to its aggressive trade policies, saying the issue had slid in previous administrations.

"Not that I want that, but they've been taking out $500 billion a year from our country," Trump says. "Nobody did anything about it. I spoke to one of the top people in China, who we negotiated with. I said, 'How did this happen?' He's a pro. He understands my question very well. He said, 'Nobody ever called us.'"

The U.S. has placed tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods from China and threatened to cover all of the rest with tariffs. It has also placed tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum ones, policies mainly directed at China. The recent U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement includes language prohibiting those countries from striking deals with China. Beijing has hit back with tariffs on $110 billion worth of U.S. goods.

Trump also discusses whom he'd like to face in 2020. "All of them," he jokes, but he does not want to give anyone too much fame. He then takes a jab at some of the potential Democratic opponents, claiming that Sen. Elizabeth Warren "made a living" dishonestly from being "an Indian under minority protections." Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has "destroyed Newark," he says. He brands former Vice President Joe Biden as a political failure before "Obama took him off the trash heap."

And he criticizes Hillary Clinton for telling Democrats that they "cannot be civil" with Republicans, saying that the statement shows "why she lost" to him in 2016.

"I saw the statement by Hillary, and that's why she lost. Because she never got it," Trump says. "From day one, she never got it. She never understood the Bernie (Sanders) thing, and she doesn't understand."

He adds: "She didn't understand what her own party was. That's why Hillary lost. And that statement is another reason. It's why she lost."

He was irritated after the recent stock market losses, which he lays squarely on the Federal Reserve. "I think the Fed is overly aggressive" in raising interest rates, he says.

"Other than that, we are doing so well. It's incredible," he adds. "The numbers, the corporate earnings, the liquidity -- it's incredible. Our country is so strong. We've never been in a position as good as we are now economically."

"Mr. President, there's a lot of people waiting for you," someone says from behind me.

Trump shakes my hand and thanks me. As he walks away, he turns and asks if I want to continue walking with him as he makes his way from one end of the arena to the other, toward the stage.

He pauses to straighten his tie in a mirror. We pass scores of Secret Service agents in suits, and as we move down the hallway, a line of men in drab-green full combat gear, including night vision goggles and automatic weapons, follows.

Along with them is a heavily guarded large soft-padded suitcase followed by a military medic.

Two years and a handful of days earlier, I interviewed then-candidate Trump in Pittsburgh ahead of a natural gas convention where he was the keynote speaker. It was a time when most pollsters and pundits showed him unable to close the deal with voters and beat Hillary Clinton.

His demeanor that day wasn't much different than it is now. He appears to be still more comfortable chatting or sharing jokes with the service workers and police officers backstage than he is with the elite he grew up with.

As he makes his way toward the end of the hall, he peeks through a curtain at one of the side entrances to the arena. An officer is startled to see the president taking a sneak peek at his own rally.

Trump smiles at him; he smiles at the president. No one in the crowd sees him but the police officer, because all eyes are fixed for the man about to take the stage.

"It really is all about hope," he says as his aides take him toward that stage. Seconds later, the arena shudders as the crowd welcomes the president of the United States.

Sean Higgins and Colin Wilhelm contributed to this report. 

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.