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Toledo — President Donald Trump defended what he called a "bold" decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and touted a "booming economy" on Thursday in Toledo during his first campaign rally of this election year.

Trump said the drone attack in Iraq on "bloody thirsty" Soleimani delivered “American justice” because the general was planning new attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East and "looking" at "our embassies."

Trump's 90-minute speech focused on foreign policy, the economy and testing out campaign attack lines before an estimated crowd of more than 8,000 people in the Huntington Center, an arena that’s home to a minor league hockey team.

"While we are creating jobs and killing terrorists, the Washington Democrats are wasting America’s time with demented hoaxes and crazy witch hunts," Trump said, referring to the investigation into Russia's involvement in his 2016 campaign. "Think of it. From the day I came down that escalator, it started. Who the hell else could have taken this stuff?"

The killing of Soleimani — whom Trump dubbed the "king of the roadside bomb" —  heightened tensions in the region and prompted Iranian leaders Tuesday to launch ballistic missiles against two Iraqi bases with U.S. forces that resulted in no casualties.

Trump said he was ready to strike if there had been any U.S. deaths.

The president blasted Democrats’ criticisms that he didn’t inform Congress before the attack, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. Trump suggested Democrats would have leaked the information to the media had he told them. 

"They want us to consult them so they can leak it to their corrupt friends in the media," he said.

Trump also said Democrats, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, would have dithered about coming to the White House for a briefing and possibly let slip away the opportunity to kill Soleimani.

Before the president's speech, Vice President Mike Pence received loud applause from the crowd when he said, "Qasem Soleimani is gone," and when he heralded the military's recent response to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

"This president said, 'No more Benghazis,'" Pence said, referring to the 2012 attacks on two U.S. facilities in Libya by Islamic militants that killed four Americans during the Obama administration.

Trump's rally came after the Democratic-controlled House voted 224-194 for a non-binding resolution demanding the president get authority from Congress to take further military action against Iran. The resolution was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.

Michigan's seven House Democrats and independent U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township voted for the resolution, while the state's six House Republicans opposed it. Three Republicans from other states voted in favor of the resolution, while eight other Democrats rejected it.

Slotkin, who did three tours of duty in Iraq for the CIA, framed the resolution as an effort to reinforce Congress' constitutional authority to declare war. 

"If our loved ones are going to be sent in any protracted war, the president owes the public a conversation," she said.

Trump opened his speech by touting the economy. He moved onto the foreign policy about four minutes into the speech.

Trump also used Thursday's speech to test out attacks against potential Democratic presidential opponents. Of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump focused on Biden's son Hunter, who's faced criticism over being on the board of a Ukrainian energy company despite a lack of energy expertise. Trump asked, "Where's Hunter?"

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"I kinda hope it’s Joe," Trump said of the potential Democratic nominee, "because he will hear 'Where’s Hunter?' at every single debate."

Later in the speech, Trump blamed "Nervous Nancy" Pelosi for taking her directions on policy from progressive Democratic U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. He cited the impeachment votes.  

"Isn't she a nice woman?" Trump said of Tlaib.

Trump also bragged about about the "booming economy" and the pending approval of a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The United States Mexico Canada Agreement is set for a Senate vote sometime this month unless Pelosi sends the two articles of impeachment to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Under the USMCA, automakers would have to produce cars with 75% of parts originating from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment. The requirement, referred to as “rules of origin,” would be an increase from 62.5% under current North American Free Trade Agreement rules.

In addition, 40-45% of an auto's content must be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour. Vehicles not meeting the requirements would be subject to a 2.5% duty.

Democrats outside of Trump's rally disagreed with Trump's foreign policy decisions and description of the economy.

Nathan Carrasco, a union electrician who said he came to Ohio to work at a steel mill in Lisbon, participated in a protest two blocks from the rally.

"The stock market doesn't reflect the economy," Carrassco argued, "not in my eyes."

He said 1,000 new jobs could be added, "but if you're not paying a livable wage and you've got to work three jobs, what's the point of it?"

Between attempts to sell $20 hats supporting President Donald Turmp, Micah Childers paused Thursday in downtown Toledo and reflected on what made him vote for Trump in 2016. 

"We were stuck in stagnancy before," said Childers, who was selling Trump gear to make money but now supports Democratic businessman Andrew Yang for president. "I was at the point a lot of people were, 'We don't care what happens. Just make something happen.'"

The crowds painted drastically different pictures of what the president had made happen during his first term in office. His supporters touted low employment and a rising stock market while opponents said Trump's economy was leaving too many behind.

Toledo is an hour from Detroit and about 10 minutes from Monroe County in southern Michigan, which, like Ohio, voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but for Trump in 2016.

Trump's 16,398-vote margin in Monroe County in 2016 helped him become the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since George H.W. Bush did it 1988. Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes — his closest margin of victory of any state.

Jared Uckele of Temperance was among the Michigan residents who made their way to Toledo to support Trump

"He's the first politician that's actually done what he's said he's going to do," said Uckele, who described himself as a "Trump supporter" from "day one."

He credited Trump with working to build a wall along the country's southern border and lowering taxes.

"Everybody in my business got a raise," Uckele said of the tax cuts Trump signed into law in late 2017.

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, predicted in a Thursday afternoon interview that Trump would focus on the economy during the rally.

While Michigan's unemployment rate is 4%, Barnes said many people are working two to three jobs to get by.

"Their future is not going to be the future they hoped for with Donald Trump," she said of voters.

About 75 people gathered two blocks away from the arena to protest Trump's rally. They chanted things like, "Hey, hey, ho, ho union buster's got to go."

A Ford truck also drove around the arena while pulling a large inflatable pig. The pig wore a "make America hate again" hat and smoked a cigar. People inside the vehicle shouted at Trump supporters as they walked into the arena.

But Robert Bennett, a Trump supporter from Norwalk, Ohio, touted the incumbent president.

"He's doing everything he said he's going to do," Bennett said. "And he hasn't lied to me."

"The economy's great," he added. "My 401(k) has gone through the roof. You can't argue with the numbers."

Bennett, a veteran with sons in the military, also supported Trump's decision to kill Soleimani.

"He played the card right," he said, adding that if Trump hadn't acted and there had been an attack against U.S. service members, Democrats would have criticized Trump for inaction.

While others left after being denied entry to the arena, hundreds more walked and huddled near the big screen television awaiting the president’s speech.

“I think people are tired of bowing down to other nations,” said Billy Fannin, 55, of Toledo, in a reference to the drone strike against Soleimani. “We want to be No. 1. And that’s what it takes. We’ve got to have a strong leader. In Donald Trump, we’ve got a strong leader.” 

As for Childers, the Toledo man who now supports Yang, he touted one of the New York entrepreneur and philanthropist's signature proposal for a universal basic income, which promises to give all American adults a guaranteed monthly income of $1,000 since automation is taking people's jobs.

"His ideas are very forward thinking," Childers said of Yang.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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