LEBANON, Ohio - President Donald Trump praised the Confederate general Robert E. Lee while asking African-American voters to “honor” Republicans at an Ohio rally which included an unexpected and provocative monologue on America’s Civil War history.
Addressing an open-air rally of around 4,000 supporters, Trump appeared buoyant as he declared that Lee was a "true great fighter" and "great general." He also said Abraham Lincoln once had a "phobia" of the Southern leader, whose support of slavery has made his legacy a heavily contested and divisive issue.
The comments came during an anecdote about Ohio-born president Ulysses S. Grant's alleged drinking problems. "Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle. And Abraham Lincoln came home, he said, 'I can't beat Robert E. Lee'," Trump said. "They said to Lincoln, 'You can't use him anymore, he's an alcoholic.' And Lincoln said, 'I don't care if he's an alcoholic, frankly, give me six or seven more just like him.' He started to win."
Minutes earlier, Trump had hailed African-American unemployment numbers and asked black voters to "honor us" by voting Republican in November. "Get away from the Democrats," he told them. "Think of it: we have the best numbers in history . . . I think we're going to get the African-American vote. And it's true." He also celebrated hip-hop artist Kanye West's visit to the Oval Office on Thursday, adding: "What he did was pretty amazing."
Trump's speech threatened to reignite a highly divisive debate over America's racial history with just weeks to go until the midterms. Trump has previously defended statues commemorating Confederate leaders, tweeting last year: "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments." Critics say such statues glorify historic advocates of slavery.
Ulysses Grant was not the only Ohio-native whom Trump deployed as a foil in his wider cultural war. He also referenced astronaut Neil Armstrong, telling crowds: "He's the man that planted the flag on the face of the moon. . . there was no kneeling, there was no nothing, there was no games, boom" in a reference to NFL athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem.
Trump was in Lebanon to boost the campaign of Rep. Steve Chabot, the incumbent whose 1st Congressional District encompasses the county and who had distanced himself from the president ahead of the event. "We didn't ask him to come . . . he wasn't my first choice or my second or my third," he told one newspaper, apparently fearful Trump's divisive rhetoric could prove costly in the competitive race. On the night, however, Chabot appeared content to revel in the president's support. "God bless the president. And I never thought I'd say this, but God Bless Kanye West," he said.
Standing before a super-sized American flag suspended between two diggers, the president listed his achievements whilst redoubling his attacks on his traditional opponents in a rally which exceeded an hour in length. He described Democrats as "the party of the mob" and said of the media: "We've learned how to live with them. We don't like it, but we've learned."
Supporters gleefully chanted Trump "Trump! Trump! Trump" and "Ka-va-naugh! Ka-va-naugh" during the event, whilst booing in reference to the media and Democratic politicians whom he accused of trying to stymie the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Brett Kavaugh.
At the outset of his speech, Trump celebrated the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest in Turkey, telling supporters at the rally: "He went through a lot, but he's on his way back" - but sidestepping the suspected killing of a Saudi journalist amid growing pressure on the White House to address the diplomatic crisis.
"I'm really proud to report that earlier today we secured the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey," he declared to a rapturous applause in Ohio, as a plane transporting the evangelical leader from Istanbul landed in Germany. "I think he's going to be in great shape. . .We bring a lot of people back and that's good. "
He earlier told reporters in Cincinnati that there had been "no deal" to secure the pastor's release. The president had been less vocal on the suspected murder of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, although he said he would raise it with his Saudi counterpart King Salman. "I will be calling at some point," he added, before pivoting to the threat posed by Iran.
Trump also praised GOP gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Mike DeWine, who is seeking to replace the term-bound Trump-critic Gov. John Kasich. He faces Democrat Richard Cordray, an Obama administration official who served as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "He was hurting people and I think he enjoyed it," said Trump of Cowdray's time in office. "No really, I think he enjoyed it."
The rally took place in Warren Country, a GOP fortress where Trump more than doubled Hillary Clinton's tally in the 2016 election and which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in over half a century.
It marked Trump’s fifth visit as candidate or president to greater Cincinnati, a city which has a spot in Trump lore as the place where he spent high school summers working for his father’s business. The “Art of The Deal” includes a chapter, “The Cincinnati Kid,” in which Trump claims credit for spotting investment opportunities in the city. “I love it,” he later said. “I worked here, I was was here, I lived here.”