Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump criticized U.S. immigration and trade policies on Saturday in speeches that veered from accusing Mexico of deliberately sending criminals across the border to professing respect for the Mexican government and love for its people.
Speaking to a gathering of Libertarians in Las Vegas before headlining an event in Phoenix, Trump repeated his charge that Mexico was sending violent offenders to the U.S. to harm Americans and that U.S. officials were being "dumb" in dealing with immigrants in the country illegally.
"These people wreak havoc on our population," he told a few thousand people attending the Libertarian gathering FreedomFest inside a Planet Hollywood ballroom on the Las Vegas Strip.
Saturday's two appearances seemed to leave many of his Republican rivals and critics scattered in disarray. On Sunday's morning talk shows, the reaction ranged from criticism to applause.
"At the end of the day, for us to win a national election, we have to do better with Hispanics," presidential candidate and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN's "State of the Union" program.
"And for us to have the moral authority as a party to govern a great nation, we have to reject this demagoguery. If we don't, we will lose, and we will deserve to lose."
With the Hispanic population rising, Hispanic voters are becoming increasingly important in U.S. politics. Their support helped Democratic President Barack Obama win re-election in 2012. Most illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanic.
Graham said Trump had "hijacked the debate" over immigration policy, adding: "I think he's a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community."
Graham has long advocated a comprehensive change in U.S. immigration laws, including providing a pathway to citizenship for some of the more than 11 million illegal immigrants.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a daughter of two immigrants and considered a potential 2016 Republican vice presidential candidate, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" she understands Trump's frustration on immigration but called for communicating with "respect and dignity."
"We want someone that brings people together," Haley added. "We want someone that understands that what unites us is a lot more than what divides us."
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on CBS's "Face the Nation," other Republican presidential candidates "have much more responsible positions" than Trump's.
"Most of the candidates have disagreed with his assertions with regard to our border. And, certainly, I disagree," he said.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina seemed to embrace Trump's views.
"Donald Trump taps into an anger that I hear every day," she told ABC's "This Week", adding that wanting to secure the nation's borders was "not extreme, it's commonsense".
That anger was apparent on Saturday.
Appearing in the 4,200-capacity Phoenix convention center packed with flag-waving supporters, Trump varied from hard-hitting attacks on Mexico to praise for the country's seemingly clever tactics.
"I love the Mexican people. I love 'em. Many, many people from Mexico are legal. They came in the old-fashioned way. Legally." An estimated 15,000 people tried to get into the event, according to a Trump spokesman.
He quickly returned to the sharp tone that has brought him scorn as well as praise. "I respect Mexico greatly as a country. But the problem we have is their leaders are much sharper than ours, and they're killing us at the border and they're killing us on trade."
His speeches in both venues were long on insults aimed at critics and short on solutions to the problems he cited. When he called for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the audience in Las Vegas groaned.
In a break from the immigration rhetoric that has garnered him condemnation and praise, Trump asserted that he would have more positive results in dealing with China and Russia if he were president and said he could be pals with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked by an audience member in Las Vegas about U.S.-Russia relations, Trump said the problem is that Putin doesn't respect Obama.
"I think we would get along very, very well," he said.
Trump has turned to victims of crime to bolster his argument that immigrants in the U.S. illegally have killed and raped. In Las Vegas and Phoenix, he brought on stage Jamiel Shaw Sr., a Southern California man whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed in 2008 by a man in the country illegally. Shaw vividly described how his son was shot — in the head, stomach and hands while trying to block his face — and how he heard the gunshots as he talked to his son on the phone.
Shaw said he trusted Trump, and encouraged the crowds in both cities to do the same.
Trump's speeches were filled with tangents and insults leveled at business partners such as Univision and NBC that have dropped him in the wake of his comments that Mexican immigrants bring drugs and crime to the U.S. and are rapists. He also directed familiar barbs at other presidential contenders, including Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton ("the worst secretary of state in the history of the country"), news media figures ("lyin' Brian Williams") and President Barack Obama ("such a divisive person"). He called journalists "terrible people."
As Trump lambasted Univision for cancelling its broadcast of the Miss USA pageant, one of his many business enterprises, a group of young Latinos unfurled a banner pointed toward the stage and began chanting insults. They were quickly drowned out by the crowd, and nearby Trump supporters began to grab at them, tearing at the banner and pulling and pushing at the protesters. Security staff managed to get to the group and escorted them out as Trump resumed speaking.
"I wonder if the Mexican government sent them over here," he said. "I think so."
Arizona's tough-on-immigration Sheriff Joe Arpaio introduced Trump in Phoenix after outlining the things he and the candidate have in common, including skepticism that Obama was born in the United States. He went on to criticize the federal government for what he called a revolving door for immigrants, saying many of them end up in his jails.
"He's been getting a lot of heat, but you know, there's a silent majority out here," Arpaio said, borrowing from a phrase Richard Nixon popularized during his presidency in a speech about the Vietnam War.
A single protester standing outside the room where Trump spoke in Las Vegas was more concerned about the businessman being tied to the Libertarian Party.
"I've been a Libertarian for 43 years and Trump ain't no Libertarian," said Linda Rawles, who asserted that including Trump in FreedomFest set back the party's movement.
Trump picked up on Arpaio's "silent majority" line.
“The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the majority back, and we are going to make America great again.”
A Reuters-Ipsos poll released on Saturday showed Trump neck-and-neck with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush atop the large field of contenders for the Republican nomination.
"How could I be tied with this guy? He's terrible!" Trump said in his speech.
"If you people go with Bush, you're going to lose," he said.
Trump's rhetoric has alarmed Republicans and drawn attention to the party's awkward debate over immigration. Republicans have struggled to attract support from Latino voters without alienating supporters concerned about illegal immigration.
Ahead of the rally, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, said Trump was creating a "circus" that risked damaging the party.
Outside the rally, Democrats from Tucson shared water bottles with about 100 protesters, who chanted "No more hate! No more hate!" to the beat of a drum.
"The only thing I can tell you is that it is awakening the Hispanic community," said Eduardo Sainz, 22. "We're keeping a tally of who is on our side and who isn't. The Hispanic community won't forget in 2016."
Protesters briefly raised a banner inside the speech reading "Stop the hate" but it was quickly pulled down amid pushing and shoving, and they were escorted out.
"I wonder if the Mexican government sent them over here. I think so," Trump said.
After the speech, Scottsdale, Arizona Republican Joan Ewart, 81, said she liked how Trump is not financially beholden to anyone.
"That's the beauty of Donald Trump. He can say anything," she said.
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