Republican front-runner Donald Trump came to the home state of the auto industry and attacked Ford Motor Co. for building factories in Mexico. And the Michigan faithful in attendance sided with the bombastic mogul.
"Ford is building a $2.5 billion plant in Mexico," he roared to a packed auditorium in Birch Run, Michigan, and 2,000 voices responded with lusty boos. "I’ll actually give them a good idea. Why don’t we just let the illegals drive the cars and trucks right into our country?"
The real estate developer and former reality TV star boasted that "President Trump" won’t let Ford move jobs to Mexico and will convince the automaker's Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields to bring jobs back to the United States.
"I would say, the deal is not going to be approved, I won’t allow it. I want that plant in the United States, preferably here," he said, as the crowd rose to its feet, chanting "U.S.A.," punctuated by a woman shouting "Detroit."
"So then I only have one question: Do they move the plant to the United States the same day or a day later?" Trump asked.
Playing to the fears of local residents in this ravaged industrial region 90 miles north of Detroit, Trump gave insight into why he continues to dominate the Republican field despite media firestorms over his comments on Mexican immigrants, Sen. John McCain’s war record and women. Standing before four American flags at a rostrum decorated with a small Republican elephant, Trump showed how he can fire up a GOP crowd still worried about the economy, terrorism and illegal immigrants.
"I’ve been waiting for somebody with cojones for a long time," said Jim Maratta, 68, a Vietnam veteran sitting in the front row wearing his VFW cap and an American flag shirt. "We need somebody with guts. I want to see him do something for jobs and get those deadbeats in Congress off their butts."
Ford countered that it is creating jobs in the United States. The automaker in April announced it is investing $2.5 billion in Mexico on two new factories to make engines and transmissions. The United Auto Workers union also objects to Ford’s growing Mexican investments and has said that will be a focal point in contract talks this summer.
"We are committed to leveraging our global manufacturing footprint and will continue to invest where it makes the best sense for our business," said Karl Henkel, a Ford spokesman. "We are proud that we have invested $6.2 billion in our U.S. plants since 2011 and hired nearly 25,000 U.S. employees."
Trump managed to avoid the controversy over comments about Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly that has dogged him since last Thursday’s Republican debate. After Kelly questioned him aggressively during the debate, Trump told CNN: "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever."
Despite those comments that many viewed as relating to a woman’s menstrual cycle — which Trump denied — his wide lead in the polls has remained steadfast. He won the support of 23 percent of those polled by NBC News/Survey Monkey over the weekend. Sen. Ted Cruz was next with 13 percent.
But Trump didn’t shy from assailing illegal immigrants from Mexico while in Michigan.
"If it weren’t for me, the words 'illegal immigrant' wouldn’t be spoken right now," Trump shouted, waving his hands with the cobra flick that suggests he’s about to fire someone. "We have to build a wall!"
With that, the crowd began stomping and chanting "Trump, Trump, Trump."
"You can be a natural born citizen and not get a 10th of the benefits that illegal immigrants do," John Grant, a real estate developer from Brighton, Michigan, said as he left the speech wearing a newly purchased Trump button. "We need someone to say what’s on their mind and to speak the truth."
In comments to reporters prior to his speech, Trump said he is 100 percent certain — "mark it down" — he could convince Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S. border to curb illegal immigration.
"Mexico is going to pay for the wall and they’re going to be happy about it because the cost of the wall is peanuts compared to the kind of money they’re making" off the United States, Trump said. "Their leaders are much smarter and sharper and more cunning than our leaders."
Outside the Birch Run Expo Center, however, the mood was less pro-Trump. Gilberto Guevara said he feels like he’s in the crosshairs whenever the billionaire "shoots from the hip."
A Vietnam veteran and a Mexican American, Guevara was offended when Trump questioned Sen. McCain’s heroism as a POW in Vietnam, and he’s tired of the characterization of Mexican Americans are a menace to society. That’s why he joined about 200 other protesters waving Mexican flags, holding "Dump Trump" placards and shouting "No bullies in our state."
"When he makes his comments, he’s just looking to get on the national news," said Guevara, 72, wearing his VFW hat and holding a sign that read "All American Veterans Are Heros."
"My parents came from Mexico. And we are law abiding citizens. We’re productive. We contribute to the economy and we’re educated," Guevara said. "He just needs to stop shooting from the hip."
Ironically, Guevara may have an ally in Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who last week criticized Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.
"He’s had a lot of success in terms of business, but a number of his comments are clearly inappropriate and would be a major concern," Snyder said in an interview last week with The Associated Press. "And I think that’s something people need to take into account in their decision-making process."
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