PENSACOLA, Florida — President Donald Trump on Friday touted his efforts to secure the homeland, telling a raucous rally crowd in the Florida panhandle that his administration is “taking care of our citizens at home” by defeating the Islamic State abroad and expelling violent street gang members from the U.S.
Trump said the U.S. military is dealing the Islamic State “one brutal defeat after another.”
“Not only are we defeating these killers, these savage killers, horrible, horrible,” Trump told hundreds of supports at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, a region a White House spokesman called “Trump country.” Florida helped Trump win the White House.
“You don’t even want to say people,” Trump said. “These are savage killers over there, but we sure as hell don’t want them to come over here.”
Trump also said he is expelling members of the violent street gang known as MS-13, which has its origins in Central America.
“America is being respected again abroad and we are taking care of our citizens at home and we’re going to have safety and we have a lot more now,” said the president, who appeared buoyed as he headlined his first campaign rally in more than two months.
“America is more than just a place on a map,” he said. “America is a nation. America is a family. America is ours to love and to cherish and to protect and to take care of.”
Before arriving in the panhandle, Trump reinforced his support for embattled Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Trump told voters four days before they go to the polls that the “LAST thing” he needs in the closely divided GOP-controlled Senate is a “Liberal Democrat” who opposes his agenda.
The White House has said the rally is a campaign event for Trump. But the location, near the Alabama border and feeding television markets in the state, stoked speculation that the rally was a backdoor way for the president to give Moore’s campaign a boost without actually setting foot in the state.
“It’s not that he’s not going to Alabama. It’s that he is going to Pensacola,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters on board Air Force One as Trump flew to Florida. “Pensacola is Trump country. This is a part of the state that voted overwhelmingly for the president in 2016. He’ll be traveling back to Florida from time to time, and it’s a key state.”
Moore, who is 70, has been dogged by multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, including accusations that he molested two teenage girls and pursued romantic relationships with several others while in his 30s. He has denied the allegations.
Shah said the president and White House have made clear they find the allegations “troubling and concerning” and believe they “should be taken seriously.” But he said Moore has maintained his innocence, and that should be taken into account as well.
“Ultimately his endorsement is about the issues,” said Shah. “He doesn’t want to see Alabama elect a Nancy Pelosi/Chuck Schumer puppet who’s going to be wrong on the issues and not support the agenda,” he said, referring to top congressional Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
Trump tweeted earlier Friday that the “LAST thing the Make America Great Again Agenda needs is a Liberal Democrat in Senate where we have so little margin for victory already.” Republicans currently have a 52-48 GOP edge in the Senate. He also criticized Democrat Doug Jones, Moore’s opponent, as being “bad” on a number of issues.
“The Pelosi/Schumer Puppet Jones would vote against us 100% of the time. He’s bad on Crime, Life, Border, Vets, Guns & Military. VOTE ROY MOORE!” Trump said.
Moore tweeted that he agreed with Trump.
“You’re right Mr. President! We can’t Make America Great Again with another radical liberal in the US Senate,” he said. “I look forward to working with you to pass the America First Agenda!”
Trump, who overcame allegations of sexual misconduct to win last year’s presidential election, looked past the charges against Moore and formally endorsed the former Alabama judge this week for the seat once held by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general.
Top Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had called on Moore to step aside after the allegations were made public.
Friday’s campaign rally was Trump’s first since September, when he went to Alabama to campaign for Sen. Luther Strange.
Strange lost the GOP runoff election to Moore.
Trump’s visit to the Florida panhandle comes in the final days of the Alabama Senate special election campaign. The crowd included some Alabama voters who traveled across the border for the rally.
“These are lies, just malicious lies,” said John Maddalena, head of the south Alabama chapter of “Bikers for Trump.” Maddalena and his wife, Alisha, rode to the Trump rally from their home near Montgomery, Alabama.
Alisha described herself as a “strong woman” who still doesn’t believe Moore’s accusers.
“You let him sit there and pass judgment on people” as a jurist “for 40 years and don’t say anything?” she asked. “You wait until he’s running for the Senate to come up with this? That makes you suspicious.”
“I’m a strong female,” she continued. “If things like that happen to you, you need to come out immediately.”
Others were Trump supporters eager to see the president in person.
Forrest Holt, 71, came to Pensacola from neighboring Gulf Breeze with his Marine buddies for the rally.
“We love Trump, because he doesn’t back down from anybody,” said Holt, who said a tax cut is his top priority.
Holt gave Trump credit for Republicans on Capitol Hill advancing competing bills through the process, but said he’s not worried about the details.
“They’re on the right track,” he said. “I pay my fair share, and I just want everyone else to pay theirs too.”
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Pensacola, Florida, contributed to this report.