With mail-in voting starting as early as next week in North Carolina, the candidates for president are focused squarely on the key battleground state.
President Donald Trump made another trip here on Wednesday, visiting Wilmington to honor several World War II veterans in attendance and designate the city as a “World War II Heritage City” on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.
“Our task today is to pass on to the next generation the blessings of liberty that you fought for, and that you bled for,” Trump said after introducing some of the veterans.
Trump spoke in front of the USS North Carolina, a former WWII battleship that’s now a floating museum in Wilmington.
Almost no one in the invitation-only crowd wore masks. The seats were also set up closer than 6 feet from each other, in violation of public health guidelines on social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the speech, Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden told The News & Observer in a written statement that “Trump has repeatedly ignored public health guidance for political purposes.”
Trump announced Wednesday he would make a campaign appearance in Winston-Salem on Tuesday, speaking to an audience at Smith Reynolds Airport.
In Wilmington, Trump spoke for about 10 minutes, railing against “violent mobs” of protesters during recent Black Lives Matter protests and musing that he could use the force of the federal government to put down those protests.
“American warriors did not defeat fascism and oppression overseas only to watch our freedoms be trampled by violent mobs here at home,” Trump said, earning a large round of applause. “We’d stop those violent mobs very easily. All they have to say is, please come in, Mr. President. I’ll have it done in one hour.”
He also praised Americans in World War II for fighting fascism and said North Carolina, and Wilmington in particular, made an “extraordinary contribution” to the war effort and deserve the honor of being the first World War II Heritage City. “That’s a big deal, our nation’s very first,” he said.
Two of the veterans in attendance were Paul Phillips and Woody Williams. Phillips served on the ship during the war, and Williams was a Marine who won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Iwo Jima. “You inspire us all,” Trump said.
Trump also praised the North Carolinians who died in the war, and at that moment, a thunderclap sounded. “That’s them saying hello,” he quipped.
He ended his speech by reminding the audience of an order he signed seeking to protect Confederate monuments.
“In America we’re not ashamed of anything,” he said. “… We’re going to keep our country great.”
In attendance were White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Republican members of Congress from North Carolina including Sen. Thom Tillis, Rep. Ted Budd, Rep. Dan Bishop and Wilmington Rep. David Rouzer. At one point Trump asked Tillis and Rouzer to stand and be recognized for their efforts to make the designation for Wilmington happen. Both did, after taking their masks off.
Biden on Trump NC trip
Ahead of the visit, Biden criticized the president for his response to the coronavirus, saying Trump has “criticized local leaders and threatened educators.”
“President Trump still does not understand that in order to fully and effectively restart the economy, we must defeat the virus. Instead of providing North Carolina the road map and resources needed to protect small businesses, schools, and families, he has criticized local leaders and threatened educators for listening to public health experts,” Biden said in a statement to The News & Observer.
North Carolina has had more than 169,000 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began in March. More than 2,700 people have died in the state. Most North Carolina students started the school year with remote learning. However, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, eased restrictions on some businesses Tuesday.
“Instead of honoring the sacrifice of our frontline heroes, President Trump has repeatedly ignored public health guidance for political purposes. Instead of focusing on expanding COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, he is trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rip away access to health care and erase protections for more than 4 million North Carolinians with preexisting conditions,” Biden said.
Not a traditional campaign
The coronavirus has upended traditional campaigning and political events this year. Trump has, for several weeks, been hitting the trail for limited events — not the huge rallies that defined his 2016 campaign. Biden, who went to Pennsylvania earlier this week, is planning to visit North Carolina, he told ABC-11 in an interview Tuesday.
“The American people are looking for responsible leadership on COVID. They have shared sacrifice, missing weddings, funerals, family events. They should expect the same responsibility coming from the president and presidential candidate. I’ll be there. I promise you. I’m coming,” Biden said.
Trump’s event, honoring military veterans and in front of perhaps the state’s most well-known military tourist attraction, came just days after a poll of active duty troops by Military Times found that just under 50% said they had an unfavorable view of the commander-in-chief. The same poll found that 38% of troops viewed him favorably.
In addition to Trump’s visits, Vice President Mike Pence will be in Raleigh on Thursday for an anti-abortion event and to accept the endorsement of a law enforcement group. Trump’s son, Eric Trump, is headlining an event for evangelicals in Huntersville this week.
The visit to Wilmington was Trump’s 12th appearance in the state since becoming president. He went to Mills River after his speech at the RNC in Charlotte.
“As Joe Biden hides in his basement and floats another economic shutdown, President Trump is on the ground for the 12th time in North Carolina, showing leadership and commitment to the Tar Heel State,” said Gates McGavick, the Trump campaign’s North Carolina press secretary, in a written statement.
Biden’s wife, Jill, was hosting a virtual event with education leaders from Guilford County on Wednesday. Democratic surrogates, including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, are conducting television and radio interviews across the state.
North Carolina, which has 15 electoral college votes, is considered a toss-up in the 2020 election. Trump and Pence carried the state in 2016. Biden, on the ticket with Barack Obama, carried the state in 2008, but lost it in 2012. Polls have shown the state is in a virtual tie.
Absentee by-mail ballots will be sent to North Carolina voters who have requested them beginning Sept. 4. More than 560,000 absentee by-mail requests have been made, a sharp increase since 2016 when about 200,000 absentee by-mail ballots were cast in the presidential election.
Democratic Rep. Deb Butler, who represents parts of Wilmington in the North Carolina General Assembly, tweeted her displeasure with Trump’s visit Tuesday evening.
“I feel sick that the draft dodging bone spur President will disgrace our beloved USS North Carolina tomorrow,” Butler wrote, adding a hashtag: “#WeWillNotYield.”
Wilmington and World War II
Rouzer and Tillis introduced Heritage City legislation in January 2019. It was included in another bill that became law in March 2019. At the time, Wilmington was expected to be one of the first cities to get the honor.
Getting the federal government to honor the city’s wartime contributions has been a decades-long goal of historian Wilbur Jones Jr., according to Rouzer and the Wilmington Star News.
Wilmington residents “had sacrificed their sleepy coastal community to the booming necessities of war” in the 1940s, as the city became home to a newly busy shipbuilding industry, plus the relocation of thousands of troops and creation of segregated entertainment facilities for white and black soldiers, the newspaper recounted this week.
A few years into the war, the military also angered locals by building a Nazi POW camp just outside of downtown Wilmington, about a mile southeast of where the New Hanover Regional Medical Center now stands.
“They were to be employed at area fertilizer plants, dairy farms and sawmills,” the Star News reported. “In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the international rules of wartime, the prisoners were paid 80 cents a day. Although their presence was disliked, local farmers appreciated the help and the prisoners were said to likewise appreciate work that didn’t involve gunfire. Locals even made a sport out of trying to catch a glimpse of them.”
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