President Trump returned Thursday night to Grand Rapids, Mich., the site of his final 2016 campaign rally, for his first big speaking event since Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his 22-month Russia investigation.
The president predictably continued his victory lap following Mueller’s finding that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. With trademark bombast, he slapped down Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who had spent the last two years pushing the Trump-Russia conspiracy narrative, labeling him “little pencil-neck Adam Schiff” – someone with the “smallest, thinnest neck I’ve ever seen.”
He referred to all of the Democrats and other detractors who boosted the collusion allegations as a “group of major losers,” declared the “collusion delusion” over, and called Mueller’s final report, as interpreted by Attorney General William Barr, a “total exoneration, complete vindication.”
Trump went on to recall his series of 2016 election night victories in Michigan and several other swing states, slammed the “fake news media” for working with Democrats to overturn his campaign victory and took pride in his decision to declare a national emergency at the border so he could find the funds to build “that wall.”
Throughout the speech, the president also directly appealed to Michigan voters by taking credit for saving the auto industry and accused “socialist” Democrats of trying to limit families to one car apiece.
Then Trump took it one step further and did something very unusual, even for him.
The president dangled a longtime local spending priority in front of the crowd – pledging to secure $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a massive environmental cleanup project that draws wide support from Republicans and Democrats alike across eight states in the region.
Four of them are key presidential battlegrounds: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Michigan was particularly pivotal to Trump’s Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton. He won there by fewer than 11,000 votes, making him the first Republican to capture Michigan in three decades.
While it’s rare for a sitting GOP president to so pointedly and publicly promise pet project spending during an early campaign-style visit to a state, the pledge was also notable because it reversed his own proposed cuts to the environmental program.
Less than a month after releasing a federal budget that would have cut Great Lakes cleanup money from $300 million to $30 million, Trump pledged to work with Congress to provide the full amount.
Unlike many of the headlines Trump rallies generate, this one was clearly pre-planned and thought out. Roughly 15 minutes into his nearly hour-long remarks, Trump told the audience, “We have some breaking news!”
“You ready? Can you handle it?” he asked. “I don’t think you can handle it. I support the Great Lakes. Always have. They are beautiful. They are big, very deep. Record deepness, right? And I am going to get, in honor of my friends, full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which you have been trying to get for over 30 years. So, we will get it done.”
Erin Perrine, Trump’s deputy communications director, tweeted out the announcement bracketed with four red sirens:
“BREAKING: @realDonaldTrump announces policy push to make sure that the Great Lakes Restoration Project gets its FULL FUNDING.”
Trump did not acknowledge that, in fact, his budget had called for drastic cuts to the long-running cleanup project.
This year, for the third year in a row, the White House budget presented to Congress suggested a 90 percent reduction in the program. During his first year in office, Trump called for entirely eliminating the restoration project, which helps remove invasive species and pollutants. There were also proposed cuts during the Obama administration.
But each year, Congress restored the funding to $300 million annually, so it’s unclear just how Trump plans to take credit for the full amount, as he claimed Thursday night.
Indeed, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman reacted earlier this month to the proposed 90 percent reduction by pledging to once again fight to preserve the program and its full annual funding.
“For the past few years, no matter whether it was a Republican or Democratic-led administration, there have been attempts to cut or eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” Portman said. “And every year, we have successfully defeated those efforts and ensured that this critical program receives full funding.”
Portman was silent about Trump’s reversal Wednesday night. But other Ohio lawmakers who had helped secure money for the program in previous years spoke up.
“As the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, I would never let Trump’s gutting of GLRI make it through Congress,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat. “It is an insult to the 30 million people who rely on the Great Lakes that he would even put such a disastrous proposal on the table.”
Republican Rep. Dave Joyce was more judicious in his comments, saying on Twitter that he was “glad to hear” about Trump’s new commitment.
“I look forward to working with you to ensure the #GLRI receives full funding so we can continue to protect the #GreatLakes,” Joyce said.