- Nominee says veterans treated worse than ‘illegal immigrants’
- Real-estate mogul has irked some veterans with past statements
Days after clinching enough delegates for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump stopped by a biker rally marking the Memorial Day weekend in an appearance aimed at channeling his anti-Washington appeal.
“He speaks his mind. We bikers are about freedom -- we’re all best friends when we ride together, even if we don’t know each other. And we all just feel like he’s one of us,” said Jeff Memges, 51, from Woodbridge, Virginia. He said that Trump’s appeal among the biker community runs deep because “there’s no support among us for the Washington establishment.”
Trump told a modest crowd of veterans and motorcycle enthusiasts near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington that the U.S. treats “illegal immigrants” better than its military veterans. “We’re not going to allow that to happen any longer,” he said.
The presumptive 2016 Republican presidential nominee has made few, if any, adjustments to his standard stump remarks as he works to widen his appeal for November’s general election after clinching the party’s nomination. On Sunday he again excoriated the Obama administration for its free-trade deals and immigration policy.
The real-estate mogul has angered some veterans in the past, particularly with his attacks on Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war. But there was mostly support for the real-estate-developer-turned-politician at the annual Rolling Thunder rally.
“People think Rolling Thunder is just all about riding on motorcycles -- it’s not,” said Heidi Macomber, 44, who made a two-day trek on her Harley-Davidson from Bowling Green, Kentucky. “We all ride together to make a lot of noise for our veterans and our POWs and those missing in action. Yeah, we have a lot fun doing it, but there’s a deeper meaning to the noise we create. I think it’s the same with Mister Trump, too.”
“I like a lot about what he says,” said Richard Yade, 75, of Boston. “I’m not sure he can come through with a lot of what he tells us. The wall, I don’t think that’s going to happen. He won’t deport as many people as he’d like to. And I don’t think he’ll be able to keep Muslims out of this country.”
“What I like is he can’t be bought,” said Yade, who works in veterans services. “He’s not part of the establishment.”
The billionaire, clad in a suit and open-necked shirt without a tie, and crowned by his customary red “Make America Great Again” cap, seemed caught off guard by a crowd that was much smaller than those at his campaign rallies. He spent some time riffing on the typical size of his crowds compared with those of Senator Bernie Sanders.
“I’ll tell you what really amazes me. I thought this would be like Doctor Martin Luther King, where the people would be lined up from here all the way to the Washington Monument,” Trump said from a small stage in front of the white marble Lincoln Memorial. Some 250,000 people heard civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the memorial in 1963.
Trump suggested that many had been prevented from attending on Sunday, without offering any evidence. People were “going crazy” that they couldn’t get through the streams of motorcycles circling the National Mall to get to his rally, Trump said.
Water and Gospel
Motorcycle enthusiasts from around the country descend on the capital during Memorial Day weekend to advocate on behalf of prisoners of war and those missing in action from the nation’s wars. This year was the 29th annual ride, which starts at the Pentagon before circling the Mall and finishing near the Lincoln Memorial.
At the Christian Motorcyclists Association’s outreach table, where volunteers were dispensing cups of water and thoughts about the gospel and Jesus, one of the volunteers said he doubted he’d walk the short distance down the sidewalk to hear Trump speak.
‘Republicans With Concerns’
“I’m one of the Republicans with concerns,” said Bob Sier of Maryland. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Trump’s presence was “a little bit of a distraction,” said Frank Carbone, 73, a retired construction worker from Pittsburgh and treasurer of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation. “But he made an effort. Ask me who the last president was to show up at this? Nobody.” Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate, was “totally uninvited” when she showed up to ride in 2011, Carbone said.
“If Trump is on stage, he was welcome,” Carbone said.
Trump has angered veterans with some of his comments -- most notably in July 2015 when he blasted McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam after his plane was shot down.
“He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?” Trump said at the time. He didn’t mention McCain on Sunday.
Before Trump’s speech, former Representative John LeBoutillier of New York, stood on the same stage and defended the billionaire’s remarks about McCain. “There has never been a public official worse on POWs than John McCain,” said LeBoutillier, a veterans’ activist who served one term in Congress in the 1980s. McCain and John Kerry, a Vietnam war veteran whose now secretary of state, “did more to kill this issue than any other elected officials.”
Trump has drawn scrutiny for failing to deliver some of the $6 million he said he raised for veterans groups in January after skipping a Republican debate in Iowa to stage his own event. The presumptive nominee plans a press conference on Tuesday to provide details on how the funds were dispersed.
That issue aside, bikers have been generally welcoming to Trump, and the organizers of Rolling Thunder have expressed anti-establishment themes that line up with those of the billionaire’s campaign.
“We better pray for a new administration in the 2016 election that will follow the Constitution of the United States and worry about America, our people and our troops first,” the Rolling Thunder organizers wrote in an open letter published in December.