Facing intensifying criticism for the violent clashes between supporters and protesters that have come to define his rallies, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump continued to taunt those who interrupt his events in St. Louis Friday afternoon, while promising that police and security would be “gentle” as they removed them.
“They’re allowed to get up and interrupt us horribly and we have to be very, very gentle,” Trump panned in response to one of nearly a dozen interruptions as he spoke at the city’s regal Peabody Opera House. “They can swing and hit people, but if we hit them back, it’s a terrible, terrible thing, right?”
Throughout his speech, Trump was deeply critical of the protesters, all of whom appeared to leave the venue peacefully.
He panned them as weak “troublemakers,” ordered them to “go home to mommy” or “go home and get a job” because “they contribute nothing.”
“These are not good people, just so you understand,” Trump said. “These are not the people who made our country great. These are the people that are destroying our country.”
He later bemoaned that protesters weren’t facing more severe consequences for their demonstrations.
“Our country has to toughen up,” he said. “These people are bringing us down.”
As Trump attempts to unify a fractured Republican party around his candidacy, racially-charged images of his supporters attacking protesters and allegations that he’s inciting violence have cast new attention on the divisive nature of his candidacy. The attention intensified after a North Carolina man was arrested earlier this week after video footage showed him sucker punching an African American protester being led out of a rally Wednesday night.
Trump had to answer questions at Thursday night’s GOP debate about the incident — the latest in a string of scuffles at his often heated rallies, at which protesters frequently clash with supporters and security.
Friday’s gathering in St. Louis was his first public campaign event since Wednesday’s rally, and Trump defended his conduct and lashed out at the press for making too much of the clashes.
“You know, they talk about a protest or something. They don’t talk about what’s really happing in these forums and these rooms and these stadiums,” Trump said. “They don’t talk about the love.”
He added that he and his supporters aren’t angry people, but they “do get angry when we see the stupidity with which our country is run and how it’s being destroyed.”
“I’d rather be too strong than too weak, by a long shot,” he said.
Still, he appeared to be aware of the bank of cameras and reporters in the back of the room, repeatedly assuring that, “Nobody’s being hurt press, nobody’s being hurt.”
Earlier Friday at a news conference in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump applauded his supporters for taking on protesters he claims have gotten physical at his rallies.
“The audience swung back, and I thought it was very, very appropriate” he said, recalling one incident. “And that’s what we need a little bit more of.”
Later Friday, Trump will hold an evening rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago — a civil and immigrant rights organizing hub with large minority student populations. Hundreds of people started lining up outside the venue hours before Trump’s scheduled appearance. Numerous uniformed Chicago police were visible around the arena, along with arena security personnel.
Trump’s visit was creating waves on the campus from the time it was announced. Dozens of UIC faculty and staff petitioned university administrators to cancel the rally, citing concerns it would create a “hostile and physically dangerous environment” for students. Chicago police plan a heavy presence.
Organizers of a student-led group, who expected hundreds of participants, planned to meet on campus and march to the arena where Trump will speak and set up shop in a nearby parking lot. Members of Black Lives Matter Chicago, which has held largely peaceful smaller protests following a police-involved shooting in Chicago, also planned to participate.
Chicago police said they were coordinating with the Secret Service, university police and fire department officials on logistics.
“People can expect to see a very visible police presence,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement.
The renewed attention on Trump’s rallies comes after a white Trump supporter was charged with assault Thursday after video showed him punching a black man being escorted out of the venue by sheriff’s deputies at a campaign rally Wednesday in North Carolina. Last year, video captured Trump supporters physically assaulting Mercutio Southall Jr., an African-American activist, at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama.
At past events, Trump has said he’d like to punch a protester in the face and promised to pay supporters’ legal fees if they get into trouble. During Wednesday night’s rally in North Carolina, he recalled a past protester, “a real bad dude.”
“He was a rough guy, and he was punching. And we had some people — some rough guys like we have right in here — and they started punching back,” Trump said. “It was a beautiful thing.”