Janesville, WI – Donald Trump landed in Janesville, the home of studiously polite House Speaker Paul Ryan, just as the GOP front-runner's campaign was hitting peak outrageousness.
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandoski, was charged with battery on Tuesday for allegedly grabbing reporter Michelle Fields at a Trump event. Lewandoski initially claimed Fields was “delusional” and that he had never met her, and maintained his innocence on Monday. A security video released by police in Jupiter, Florida showed him making contact with Fields while an eyewitness, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, confirmed her account.
Speaking to a room of several hundred, with thousands more outside listening on speakers, Trump defended Lewandoski and smeared Fields.
“Corey you’re fired? I can’t do that,” Trump said. He described the incident to the crowd: "All of a sudden she bolts into the picture, she had, she grabs me or hits me on the arm... I mean, maybe he touched her a little bit but I didn't, it was almost like he was trying to keep her off me, right?"
He told the audience that the video disproved a nonexistent claim by Fields that she was thrown to the ground – she specifically wrote at the time that she maintained her balance – and the crowd erupted in hatred.
“She’s a liar!”
“It was bulls--t!”
Trump supporter Brad Schonder, 57, said he was incensed with the media’s coverage of the incident. He had watched the security video “twenty times” and saw a picture Fields tweeted of a bruised arm that he doubted was from the incident.
“I’ve grabbed my children a hundred times harder to stop them from doing something stupid and they didn’t come away with marks on their body,” he said.
Lewandoski’s arrest capped off a week in which Trump faced widespread criticism within the GOP for disparaging opponent Senator Ted Cruz’s wife and stoking rumors – denied by Cruz – that he had been unfaithful to her. An anti-Trump super PAC is running an ad in Wisconsin highlighting his long history of misogynist comments about woman, and general election polls show Trump’s support among women hitting catastrophic lows.
In a surreal shift in tone, Trump’s comments on Fields were followed by a tearful impromptu speech from former Miss Wisconsin Melissa Young, who thanked Trump for offering moral support to her and her Mexican-American son while she struggled with an incurable illness. Trump walked into the crowd to embrace her.
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Returning to his speech, he said rival Cruz was ineligible to run for president due to his Canadian birthplace.
“He wasn’t born on our soil,” Trump said. “He’s not a natural born citizen. He’s not a natural born citizen.”
Trump’s Wisconsin campaign is testing the limits of “Wisconsin nice” in a state where Republicans say they normally take pride in their civility. Polls show Trump in a close three-way race between Cruz and Ohio native John Kasich, both of who see an opportunity to knock the party front-runner down a peg in Tuesday’s primary.
“[Ryan] just tries to get along with everyone,” Beth Schmidt, chairwoman of the Rock County GOP who is neutral in the primary, told MSNBC. “I don’t think we have a lot of politicians that are real disruptive here.”
But Ryan’s base isn’t necessarily the same as Trump’s – even in his own backyard. When Trump mentioned Ryan in Janesville on Tuesday, the crowd erupted in boos.
“I was told be nice to Paul Ryan!” Trump responded, seemingly surprised by the reaction.
Trump received a tougher reception on Monday when he called-in to three of the state’s top conservative talk shows, whose hosts have condemned his demeanor and policies.
“Here in Wisconsin, we value things like civility, decency and actual conservative principles,” host Charlie Sykes told Trump.
The next day, Governor Scott Walker – who exited the presidential race last September calling for a “positive, conservative alternative” to Trump -- endorsed Cruz in an interview with Sykes.
But, as the audience at his packed event demonstrated on Tuesday, there’s room for Trump in the state’s Republican electorate, even as campaign sinks further and further into the mud.
For one thing, Wisconsin is a rust belt state with a heavy manufacturing base, the kind of environment Trump has thrived in while pledging to confront companies who outsource jobs.
“Sometimes they say I’m a phenomena. I’m not,” Trump told the crowd. “It’s the message: We want jobs. We want trade deals that are smart and not stupid.”
Janesville is still recovering from the closure of a major General Motors auto plant during the Great Recession that supplied thousands of jobs over nearly a century of use. Ryan made the plant’s failure to reopen a symbol of President Obama’s economic record during his vice presidential run in 2012.
“I worked 20 years at GM, everything from management to line,” Sheri Henry, 57, told MSNBC as she waited for the rally. “[Trump] definitely needs to do something about trade. It all started with NAFTA and that ‘giant sucking sound’ of jobs moving overseas.”
Trump has so far proven immune to criticism in his primary race, in which an NBC News/Survey Monkey found him hitting 48 percent support among registered Republican voters nationally this week. But as the general election looms and poll after poll show him trailing Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, his magic act is looking less dazzling.
Outside the event, dozens of protesters chanted and waved signs decrying Trump. In a twisted display of “Wisconsin nice,” a woman taunted Trump supporters by screaming “Have a beautiful day!” at the top of her lungs as she passed them in line.
Joneé Avemdamo, 26, came from Madison to protest Trump’s immigration position. Her mother is a legal Colombian immigrant, but she worries that Trump’s proposed deportation force might sweep her up anyway because of her accent.
“I’m afraid for the safety of America,” she said. “I think he will bring a lot of violence into the world.”