While the White House press corps was gathered in Washington, D.C., Saturday night for an annual gala, President Trump was in another Washington with a different crowd that he much preferred.
For the second year in a row, the president opted not to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner and instead hold a campaign rally of his own. And this year, he held it in Washington Township, Mich. — which is located in Macomb County, Mich., the home of the so-called Reagan Democrats, but which is now part of what's known as "Trump Country."
"Hello, Michigan. Hello, Michigan." Trump said as the large crowd inside an arena chanted "USA! USA! USA!"
"You may have heard I was invited to another event tonight," the president said, adding "but I'd much rather be in Washington, Michigan, than in Washington, D.C., right now. That I can tell you."
Despite the night being framed by his absence from the nation's capital and from an event hosted by D.C. journalists which his predecessors have dutifully attended, Trump's remarks focused less on his familiar lines of attack against the media and more on his trademark policy initiatives, his accomplishments during his first 16 months in office and November's midterm elections.
"We need to elect more Republicans so we can protect our cities, defend our borders, grow our economy and continue to make America great again," Trump said early in his 80 minutes of remarks delivered in his often improvisational, stream-of-consciousness style to enthusiastic supporters.
"You see what's happening with regulations, with massive tax cuts, with judges," Trump also told the crowd that was cheering, holding signs and wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats.
"We're appointing judges like, I guess — never before has anything happened like what we're doing on great, conservative, Republican judges," he said. The president also gave a specific shout-out to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch who, Trump said, "has been fantastic."
Trump's nearly hour-and-a-half-long stump speech touched on many of his recognizable talking points, including: having respect for the American flag and standing for the national anthem; having a strong military and increasing military spending; the strength of the economy and the stock market; the need for more job training for the skilled trades and more vocational schools; and his persistent claims of bias and corruption in the FBI as it has investigated Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Just days after a meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea and ahead of his planned meeting with the North's Kim Jong Un next month, the president trumpeted his efforts to pressure the North to end its nuclear weapons program.
While he conceded he didn't "really know" how his diplomatic efforts would turn out, he assured the crowd with, "I'll tell you one thing: We're not playing games."
And answering criticism that he was engaging in nuclear brinksmanship with a volatile regime, Trump said, "No, strength is going to keep us out of nuclear war. It's not going to get us in."
Regarding trade and his desire to end some multilateral trade deals and negotiate new bilateral deals instead, the president explained, "I can't let other countries take advantage of us. I can't."
And echoing one of his talking points on trade, Trump said he doesn't fault other countries and world leaders for what he sees as unfair or imbalanced trade and deficits. Instead, "I blame past presidents and past leaders of our country," he told the crowd who erupted in cheers.
The president renewed his praise of Dr. Ronny Jackson, who withdrew his nomination to be the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and his attacks on Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who had led the effort to surface allegations against Jackson that doomed the nomination. Tester is up for re-election in November in a state that Trump carried in 2016.
Jackson is "a truly high-quality human being," Trump said.
"Well, I know things about Tester that I could say, too," the president added, "and if I said them, he'd never be elected again."
"What Jon Tester did to this man is a disgrace," Trump told the crowd. Jackson has denied the allegations against him that recently made headlines. And late Friday, the White House said it had conducted its own investigation of the most serious allegations against Jackson. That investigation yielded no documents supporting the allegations and found some evidence refuting two major allegations against Jackson, the White House said.
On border security, the president seemed to suggest in an offhand way that he was willing to see the federal government shut down in order to get the level of security on the U.S.-Mexico border that he desires.
"We have to have borders and we have to have them fast. And we need security. We need the wall," the president said. Trump explained that his administration had already obtained $1.6 billion in funding from Congress for improvements along the southern border. "We come up again on September 28th and if we don't get border security, we'll have no choice. We'll close down the country."
The president also gave a nod to rapper Kanye West who has stirred controversy by espousing his support for Trump on Twitter, a move that has made the artist a symbol of free speech and free thought in recent days on Trump-friendly Fox News.
"Kanye West gets it," the president says after touting milestones in black and Hispanic unemployment that have been achieved during his tenure in office.
As for November and what many political observers see as a tough midterms season for the GOP, Trump juxtaposed national Democrats against many of his initiatives and policy positions.
"The Democrats don't care about our military, they don't care about our borders and I don't think they care much about crime," the president said.
"Nancy Pelosi and her gang, they've got to be voted out of office," Trump added.
"A vote for a Democrat in November is a vote for open borders and crime. It's very simple," Trump also told the crowd later in his remarks after referencing Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who is up for re-election this year. "It's also a vote for much higher taxes. It's also a vote for — be careful of your Second Amendment. OK, be careful. Be careful of your Second Amendment if they get in."
The president's rally was a hit with two supporters from Livonia, Mich., who spoke with NPR.
Bill King, a retiree, said he's "loving" Trump so far and that he believes the president is good for the economy. King also agreed with Trump's central message Saturday night.
"Republican voters are going to have to show up," King told NPR, "The left wing is jazzed up for this; they're motivated. We have to get Republicans motivated in order to keep good things happening." King said he still wants to see Trump's border wall built, to have the nation's immigration laws changed as Trump and some conservative Republicans in Congress are proposing and for Congress to pass a second round of tax cuts.
King's wife, Gina, said she approved of Trump. "To me, he's really proven that somebody who isn't part of the swamp can get things done — even though he has a lot of resistance."
Both Kings said they are frustrated with members of Congress in both parties, saying Capitol Hill is obstructing Trump and not getting enough done.
And the media?
The press was the target of the president's ire Saturday night far less than it was last year — when he skipped the same Washington, D.C., event and held a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pa.
"These are very dishonest people, many of them. They are very, very dishonest people. Fake news, very dishonest," Trump told the Michigan crowd after criticizing the use of anonymous sources in press reports.
The president also called out "fake CNN" near the end of his remarks.
"By the way, is this better than that phony, Washington White House Correspondents' Dinner? Is this more fun?" the president asked just before he wrapped up his speech.
The question was clearly rhetorical and the answer was obvious both to Trump and the arena full of supporters.
But if there was any doubt, the president put it to rest.
He told the crowd had he been at the dinner in the other Washington, he would've been forced to smile through attacks on him or face negative stories afterward about not being a good sport while being roasted at the annual gathering of D.C. journalists.
"You know, there's no winning," he said over cheers.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
President Trump spent last night in Washington - that's Washington Township, Mich., where his campaign hosted a rally with thousands of supporters. And that was deliberate.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Is this better than that phony Washington White House Correspondents...
TRUMP: Is this more fun?
TRUMP: I could be up there tonight, smiling like I love where they're hitting you shot after shot. These people - they hate your guts.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was the second year in a row that Trump skipped the White House Correspondents dinner in Washington, D.C., an event traditionally attended by the president. Ronald Reagan skipped it only once after he was shot. Instead, Trump rallied his base ahead of this year's midterm elections, hitting some familiar themes. And to talk about that is NPR's Sarah McCammon. She was there, and she joins us in the studio this morning. Good morning.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this wasn't the White House Correspondents dinner. I'm assuming you weren't wearing a gown. But it was in a town called Washington, which was clearly intentional. What was President Trump's message to his supporters in Michigan?
MCCAMMON: Right, no evening gowns in Washington Township last night. And as you heard, he made a big point of not going to the White House Correspondents dinner, being in Michigan instead. That was, of course, a really important state for him in 2016. And last night, he made a big pitch to those same voters to turn out this year and elect Republicans in the midterms. Trump said voting for a Democrat is voting for open borders, crime and higher taxes. And that message seemed to be resonating with his supporters there, like Bill King (ph), who came to the rally with his wife.
BILL KING: Republican voters are going to have to show up. The left wing is jazzed up for this. They're motivated. We have to get Republicans motivated in order to keep good things happening.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the Trump supporters - they're still embracing his message, I guess, on taxes, immigration, the economy. Did we hear anything new from the president, though?
MCCAMMON: Well, interestingly, some of the controversies that have been swirling around in recent days seem to have sort of morphed into campaign talking points. Take Ronny Jackson. He, of course, was Trump's Veterans Affairs secretary nominee who stepped aside last week after multiple service members who'd worked with him came forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior, including mishandling of prescription drugs. Jackson and the White House have denied those allegations. But President Trump doubled down on his recent criticism of Senator Jon Tester. He's the Democrat from Montana who made the allegations public.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
TRUMP: Well, I know things about Tester that I could say, too.
TRUMP: And if I said them, he'd never be elected again.
MCCAMMON: And then a few minutes later, Trump again brought up the midterms and told supporters to, quote, "vote against guys like Jon Tester that can destroy a man with innuendo."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has been a busy several days for President Trump not only on domestic issues but also foreign affairs. He's been talking a lot about that in previous days. Did that come up at all?
MCCAMMON: Yeah. He got a lot of applause from the crowd, even shouts of Nobel - like Nobel Peace Prize - when he talked about the summit between leaders of North and South Korea. And he said, people thought I was going to lead the world into nuclear war. But, quote, "strength is going to keep us out of nuclear war."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you very much.
MCCAMMON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.