President Donald Trump mocked former Senator Al Franken on Thursday for folding “like a wet rag” and quickly resigning last year in the face of sexual misconduct allegations – an extraordinary statement as the president’s Supreme Court nominee nears a vote in a confirmation process rocked by such accusations.
Mr Trump, addressing a rally in Mr Franken’s home state of Minnesota, mentioned the woman who was appointed to take the senator’s seat, Tina Smith, during an extended riff in which he suggested that Mr Franken was weak for stepping down so quickly.
“Nobody knows who the hell she is,” Mr Trump said. “She took a wacky guy’s place.”
“He was wacky,” Mr Trump said. “Boy, did he fold up like a wet rag, huh? Man. Man. He was gone so fast, OK?”
“Oh, he did something,” he said, adding, “'Oh, oh, oh, I resign, I quit.'”
“I don’t want to mention Al Franken’s name, so I won’t mention.”
The remark was in keeping with Mr Trump’s long-stated personal mantra of never giving in to any accusation, and considering those who do to be weak. But it came at a fraught moment when four senators, two of them Republican women, remain undecided about whether to vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. A crucial procedural vote is scheduled for Friday morning.
Mr Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault or misconduct by three women in episodes that they say took place decades ago. Mr Kavanaugh has strongly denied the accusations, including in a fiery appearance at a Senate hearing last week.
In contrast to his attack on Mr Franken, Mr Trump was silent about allegations made by a former girlfriend against Democrat representative Keith Ellison that he physically and emotionally abused her. Mr Trump criticised Mr Ellison as too liberal on immigration and health care, but noted that Mr Ellison had seen the president’s potential early on in the 2016 campaign and had said so on a Sunday morning talk show.
Mr Ellison, a deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee who is now running for Minnesota attorney general, has denied the allegation.
The performance by the president was ostensibly for candidates facing a tough midterm election climate in a state Mr Trump came close to winning in 2016. Instead, it became a rambling and often misleading or false 71-minute session about the media, North Korean nuclear disarmament, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Democrats – “the party of crime”.
At one point, Karin Housley, the Republican Senate candidate who is opposing Ms Smith, came to the microphone. “You really do go off script, don’t you? Jeez,” she said, suggesting that the president say her name more and Ms Smith’s less.
He mentioned Mr Kavanaugh twice, and at one point was met with chants of “Vote him in!” Mr Trump moved on quickly from the topic, a contrast to his rally appearance in Mississippi on Tuesday night, when he tried to stoke the crowd as he mocked the testimony of one of Mr Kavanaugh’s accusers, Christine Blasey Ford.
At another point, Mr Trump complained that the media did not properly cover his discussions with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and that he was treated too aggressively over his relations with Mr Putin.
“They want me to get into a boxing match with him,” Mr Trump said of the criticism of his friendly encounter with the Russian leader in Finland. “If I was really rough with Russia they’d say, ‘He was too tough.'”
For all the jabs, though, the speech was not one of Mr Trump’s punchiest or most engaged. The energy of the crowd members sagged for the first half of the rally, and Mr Trump appeared to be testing different lines to try to entice them. He eventually abandoned his prepared remarks almost entirely, and the crowd got more engaged.
His supporters seemed to like a story he told about a concession that he claimed to have received from Canada in the renegotiated trade agreement with that nation and Mexico. He said it related to advertising rights and the NFL.
“I heard that the NFL had a problem with Canada on their advertising, on the commercials. A big, big problem. I’m not going to get into what it was, but it was a very bad problem, and it went on for years, and it was hurting the NFL,” Mr Trump said. “I like some of the people, I don’t like some of them – it doesn’t matter. It is an American company. It’s a great American company. So during the negotiation I said, ‘We have to fix the NFL problem.'”
He said he had taken a call from the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, thanking him for interceding. Mr Trump has been at war with the NFL over acts of protest against racism by players during the national anthem.
The rally was Mr Trump’s third of four planned for this week, as he tries to corral Republican voters ahead of what is expected to be a difficult midterm election for his party.
At Mr Trump’s previous two rallies this week, in Tennessee and Mississippi, he focused extensively on Mr Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, accusing Democrats of trying to “shatter” the judge’s life.
Mr Trump is trying to help Republicans in a string of competitive congressional races in Minnesota. His narrow loss in the state in 2016 was noteworthy – had he won, he would have been the first Republican since President Richard M Nixon to do so. But Mr Trump’s trade war with China has hurt prices for soybeans, an important crop in the state.
Mr Trump’s aides have laid down a marker about House candidates who choose not to campaign with him. They took note of Erik Paulsen, a Minnesota congressman, for distancing himself, suggesting there could be consequences with voters.
The New York Times
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