GREAT FALLS – Moments after President Donald Trump strolled on stage Thursday afternoon at Montana ExpoPark in Great Falls, he drew a bead squarely on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the incumbent Democrat who faces a tough race in November’s general election and with whom the Republican president has feuded since April.
The attacks on Tester delighted the crowd of around 6,600 rally-goers, while a spillover crowd of more than 1,000 people lingered outside under the baking sun, some of them mingling with and jeering at anti-Trump protesters gathered near the entranceway to the fairgrounds. In the hours leading up to the president’s arrival shortly after 4 p.m., a long line of supporters wrapped around the fairgrounds’ perimeter.
Inside, rally-goers clad in “Make it America Great” hats and “Build the Wall” t-shirts greeted the president with loud applause.
“You deserve a senator that doesn’t just talk like he’s from Montana. You deserve a senator who actually votes like he’s from Montana,” Trump told the crowd to raucous cheers.
Tester is running for a third term in the U.S. Senate and faces a formidable challenger in Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who appeared alongside Trump at the July 5 rally after the crowd heard remarks from other prominent GOP leaders, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, as well as Donald Trump Jr.
Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, recently garnered national attention for his reveal of reports, many of them anonymous, about Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the president’s nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, an organization of 360,000 employees serving 10 million veterans and their families, including about 100,000 in Montana, which is home to one of the highest rates of veterans per capita.
In response, the president tweeted out a series of scathing critiques about Montana’s senior senator, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Trump called on him to resign and threatened vaguely that “I know things about Tester that I could say, too, and if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”
Trump also vowed to visit Montana and campaign against Tester, a promise he made good on Thursday.
“Jon Tester said things about [Jackson] that were horrible and that weren’t true. That’s probably why I’m here because I won Montana by so many points,” Trump said, pivoting to his own election success in the Treasure State. “We won by 44 points over a Democrat. Now that’s Hillary Clinton so she gets special treatment.”
The very mention of Clinton prompted the crowd to loudly chant, “lock her up, lock her up,” but it was Tester on whom the president repeatedly locked his sights.
Tester has remained dismissive of Trump’s pledge to campaign against the sitting senator, and his response on Thursday was to hold a listening session in Billings to talk about tariffs with local agricultural producers.
Tester also says his record of supporting the state’s veterans stands on its own.
During the current Congress, Tester has sponsored eight veteran-specific bills and ushered them into law under Trump, a degree of success the Democrat has used to curry favor with Montana’s characteristically independent voting base. Even though Trump won Montana handily by 20 points, for example, Bullock, a Democrat, also won his reelection bid by 4 points.
Tester is banking that his record of working for veterans will hold up and stand out, both as a salient pillar of his campaign and as a way to drown out Trump’s threats.
Still, Trump’s maligning of the senator struck a chord with the president’s supporters attending the rally.
In the wide-ranging rally speech, Trump also touched on border security, the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, tariffs, industry deregulation, and abortion.
“Tester and the Democrats want open borders which means lots of crime. We want tough, strong, powerful borders and we want no crime and we are going to protect ICE,” he said, referring to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. “They’ll protect us and we are going to protect them.”
Several times, Trump referred to the upcoming vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court following Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire and promised that the crowd of conservatives would be pleased with his upcoming pick. Trump has already nominated one justice, Neil Gorsuch, to the high court since he began his tenure as president. Tester voted against Gorsuch, which Trump was quick to seize on.
“Jon Tester voted against Neil Gorsuch. The incredible judge that supports fully our Constitution. Tester opposed many of our amazing judges,” Trump said. “Jon Tester voted for liberal Obama judges who tried to take away your Second Amendment. Tried to take it away. Because Tester doesn’t share your values.”
Trump said he has read the investigative report released by the Defense Department into Jackson’s alleged conduct, which included allegations that he overprescribed medications and crashed a government vehicle while intoxicated.
“The report just came out and it’s long but it’s beautiful,” Trump said. “He served many years, admirable. Not a blemish. Perfect.”
Trump concluded his remarks by lumping Tester in with other prominent Washington Democrats, a parallel that has been increasingly drawn to tarnish a Democratic senator who prides himself on being authentically Montanan.
“A vote for Jon Tester is a vote for Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and the new leader of the Democratic party, Maxine Waters,” he said.
Outside, sheriff’s deputies formed a presence as Trump supporters streamed past a group of protesters. The officers made at least one arrest.
Most Trump supporters were in high spirits, and many families were in attendance together.
“I don’t care which side you’re on, to be able to see the president of the United States is an amazing experience,” Colleen Pettyjohn, of Bozeman, said as she held her 5-month-old son, Hawksley. “And for this one to be able to see him. It’s a wonderful thing.”