2020 Election

President Trump Makes a Tricky 2020 Pitch in the Rust Belt

5 minute read

Donald Trump campaigned for president on a promise to bring back American manufacturing. As he prepares to run for re-election in 2020, his new strategy seems to be highlighting individual factories to argue that he is succeeding, while blaming unions and corporate leaders for any failures.

On Wednesday, that meant a trip to a tank factory in Ohio. The Lima Army Tank Plant at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center is hardly a typical example of the decline of American manufacturing. Its main problem is that the U.S. military has little need for tanks when fighting guerrillas in the Middle East.

But when the plant has teetered on the edge of closure in the past, the federal government has swooped in at the last minute with new contracts, and the Trump Administration is no different. Earlier this year the Pentagon announced a $714 million order to upgrade M1 Abrams tanks at Lima.

Speaking in front of about 800 workers, supporters and local officials gathered inside the cavernous plant, Trump took credit for the hundreds of jobs the White House says the contract will create.

“You better love me,” he said. “I kept this place open.”

In the same speech, Trump also called for GM to reconsider its decision to lay off 1,500 workers and close a plant in Lordstown that made the now-discontinued Chevrolet Cruze. Repeating arguments he made on Twitter over the weekend, Trump blamed union leaders for the plant closure while also criticizing management.

“What’s going on with General Motors?” Trump said. “Open it, or sell it to somebody who wants it.”

Ohio is critical to Trump staying in the White House for a second term. He won the state by eight points in 2016, but since taking office has seen his net approval drop by 19 percentage points, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll.

The trip highlighted some of the difficulties that Trump will face on the issue of trade here. During the campaign, Trump outlined three major strategies he’d pursue: renegotiating trade deals, imposing tariffs on foreign goods and twisting the arms of corporate leaders.

Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and negotiated with Mexico and Canada on a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the other signatories to TPP went ahead on a new Asian trade pact without the U.S., while Trump’s NAFTA replacement has not yet been approved by the Senate.

Critics argue that levying tariffs on foreign products has caused more harm than good. GM said the tariffs he announced on steel and aluminum a year ago have cost the company about $1 billion in profits and cited them along with changing consumer tastes when it announced the Lordstown closure.

And Trump’s repeated criticism of GM appears to have had little effect, as the power of his Twitter bully pulpit on individual corporations appears to have waned since his first days in office. The company’s most recent statement didn’t mention his demands.

Still, some Ohio Republicans said the president’s personal charisma would carry him far.

“Every time the President comes into Ohio, he generates excitement,” Michael Hartley, a longtime GOP political consultant and the executive director of Swing State Strategies, a public relations firm based in Columbus, Ohio, told TIME. Trump’s spin through Lima and Canton “will get folks jacked up for the 2020 election,” Hartley said, adding that Democrats ignore the state “at their peril.”

Although the trip to the tank plant was official White House business, it bore the trappings of a campaign stop. Trump walked in front of the crowd to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” and exited to the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” two staples of his 2016 campaign soundtrack.

He stood in front of a carefully arranged Abrams tank, joking about Michael Dukakis’ ill-fated tank ride in the 1988 campaign.

“He tanked when he got into the tank,” Trump said.

He took swipes at former President Obama.

“Four straight years, the number of U.S. tanks that were budgeted for upgrades was zero,” he said. “Does anybody remember that? Raise your hands. Remember that? Zero. That was under your great President Obama.”

And he unexpectedly veered into a five-minute riff on his feud with the late Sen. John McCain.

As the crowd stood mostly silent, Trump criticized McCain for casting a decisive vote against a Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, argued inaccurately about the senator’s record on veterans issues, blasted him for passing along the so-called Steele dossier to the FBI and then argued, bizarrely, that he had not been properly thanked for allowing McCain’s funeral. (In reality, the president played little role in approving it.)

It was a moment that ended up overshadowing the message of the event on cable news, along with a tweet earlier in the day about the husband of advisor Kellyanne Conway.

There is not yet a Democratic nominee for Trump to use as a foil in places like Ohio. So for now, he’s running against his own record — and himself.

With Tessa Berenson and W.J. Hennigan/Washington

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