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Barnstorming with Trump in the ultimate campaign prop: Air Force One

Why We Wrote This

At a dizzying succession of Make America Great Again rallies, President Trump makes the case for Republican candidates. But really, the crowd is there to see him.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Trump arrives to attend a campaign rally for Republican US Senate candidate Matt Rosendale at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Belgrade, Mont., Nov. 3.

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In these final days of the 2018 midterms, Air Force One “hangar rallies” are part of the show. They’re not just about efficiency, as President Trump barnstorms the country stumping for Republican candidates. They are a visual reminder of the power and prestige of the presidency. And at all four rallies this reporter attended Friday and Saturday as part of the Air Force One traveling press pool, the show was really mostly about Mr. Trump. He’s the one folks came to see, some spending the night in line to make sure they got in. “Wow, we get the biggest crowds,” Trump said as he took the stage in Belgrade, Mont. The candidates – the ones whose names are actually on the ballot Tuesday – are almost bit players, getting just a few minutes on stage in rallies that can last more than an hour. In Pensacola, Fla., gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis knew just what to say when he took his turn on stage. “President Obama came to Florida the other day, and he didn’t get a crowd this big,” said the former GOP congressman, a Trump acolyte. “He didn’t even come close.”

The view from Air Force One as we approached Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport was breathtaking: snow-capped mountains, low-hanging clouds, farms dotting the valleys.

As we landed, we could see the brightly lit rally site – an airport hangar. The presidential jet taxied over and pulled to a stop, creating a dramatic backdrop for President Trump’s next Make America Great Again rally.

In these final days of the 2018 midterms, Air Force One “hangar rallies” have been part of the show. And they’re not just about efficiency, as Mr. Trump barnstorms the country. They are a visual reminder of the power and prestige of the presidency, as he stumps for Republican candidates and revs up his own reelection fight.

In Montana, the main beneficiary was state Auditor Matt Rosendale, the Republican trying to replace Sen. Jon Tester, who’s pretty popular for a Democrat in a state Trump won by 20 points.

But at all four MAGA rallies this reporter attended Friday and Saturday as part of the Air Force One traveling press pool, the show was really mostly about Trump. He’s the one folks came to see, some spending the night in line to make sure they got in.

“Wow, we get the biggest crowds,” Trump said as he took the stage at the Bozeman airport in Belgrade, Mont. “Hello Montana, I said I’d be back, and I am.”

Trump, in short, is the closer. And at his MAGA rallies, the candidates – the ones whose names are actually on the ballot Tuesday – are almost bit players. They get their few minutes on stage, and then off they go, back to the sidelines, in rallies that can last more than an hour. Supporters hold signs pre-printed with Trump slogans – “Drain the Swamp,” “Women for Trump,” “Jobs vs. Mobs.” No signs for the local candidates are in sight.

In Montana, Trump made clear his main goal is to defeat Senator Tester, whom he blames for sinking the nomination of White House physician Ronny Jackson last spring as Veterans Affairs secretary.

“It’s honestly one of the reasons I’m here so much,” Trump said Saturday, on his fourth visit to Montana since taking office – a record for a sitting president.

But in this home stretch of the 2018 midterms, Trump barely needs a reason to go out and campaign. He clearly loves the adulation, the dramatic entrances, the show. Campaigning seems to get his competitive juices flowing, and with the 2020 presidential campaign already under way, the MAGA rallies are expected to keep right on going after Tuesday.

Rallies also give Trump an opportunity to fight an old battle: comparing crowd sizes with former President Barack Obama, the issue that bit Trump on Inauguration Day. Like Trump, Mr. Obama has been campaigning vigorously in the run-up to Tuesday’s elections – a break from the norm for an ex-president, as Trump himself has broken the mold in his own all-out midterm push.

On Saturday afternoon, Trump re-tweeted a video showing the line for his Belgrade event and added: “Landing in Montana now – at least everybody admits that my lines and crowds are far bigger than Barack Obama’s…”

The day before, this White House pool reporter learned the perils of estimating a Trump crowd size. We were at the first MAGA rally of our trip, in a small airport hangar in Huntington, W.Va. Air Force One was in its place, parked behind the stage. It was a cozy event – small enough that one could eyeball a rough estimate of attendance. Or so I thought.

Another reporter and I settled on “maybe 1,000,” and I put that in my report to the rest of the press corps. (I also noted that some folks were trickling out; after all, it was 51 degrees in that hangar.) Soon I received an email from a White House staffer saying the official “mag” count – that is, people who had gone through screening devices – was more than 4,000.

Later, at our second event of the day, in a high school in Indianapolis, the big gymnasium was packed. Maybe 10,000 people? I thought. This time, I asked: “Approximately 8,500 and there were a few thousand in overflow,” came the email reply.

I give up.

More important is the remarks. In West Virginia, Trump acknowledged that the Republicans could lose control of the House – a noteworthy moment, given his usual insistence that a “red wave” is building and the widespread view that the midterms are a referendum on his presidency, which he himself has said.

“It could happen,” he said of a Democratic House takeover. “You know what I say? Don’t worry about it. I’ll just figure it out.”

Trump talked up the strong economy, but spent more time attacking Democrats on issues that induce fear and anger – the US-Mexico border, the caravan, “illegal aliens,” “violent predators,” and the recent, messy Supreme Court confirmation battle.

“I think they overplayed their hands on this one, folks, because between Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh and the caravans, you people are energized!”  Trump said in Indianapolis.

Curiously, the issue of  “birthright citizenship” – the right of any person born on US soil to American citizenship – vanished from Trump’s rhetoric as quickly as it had arrived. There was also no “joking” about body-slamming, which a Montana GOP candidate had done to a reporter last year. Even the nicknames got tamer. Perhaps Trump had gotten a message that his language may be turning off independents.

The final stop of the day – Pensacola, Fla., in the state’s conservative panhandle – was arguably the most important. Florida is the nation’s biggest political battleground, and the GOP’s top statewide candidates are locked in tight races.

Air Force One pulled right up alongside a massive hangar, outfitted with bleachers festooned in red, white, and blue. When I reached the bottom of the stairs at the back of the plane, I looked up, and there was Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is running for Senate.

“Hello, governor,” I said, startled. He smiled and offered a slight wave.

Moments later, Trump, Governor Scott, gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, and his wife, Casey, descended the stairs at the front of Air Force One and made their grand entrance.

Mr. DeSantis knew just what to say when he took his turn on stage.

“President Obama came to Florida the other day, and he didn’t get a crowd this big,” said the former congressman, a Trump acolyte. “He didn’t even come close.”

In my pool report, I didn’t venture an estimate on crowd size. “Hangar is huge,” I wrote. “Many AF1s would fit in here.”

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