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Trump returns to battleground Michigan, claims no president has done more for the state

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Freeland — President Donald Trump took credit for rescuing an already revived auto industry and told his supporters their votes "will save America" as he roared back into Michigan for his first campaign rally in the state since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

"After the last administration nearly killed the U.S. auto industry, I saved the U.S. auto industry," said Trump, making a questionable claim as he took direct aim at Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

After winning Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, the Republican president is hoping for a repeat on Nov. 3. Much of his speech Thursday night outside of an airport hangar in Freeland focused on what he considered his accomplishments related to the state and criticisms of Democratic leaders in office here.

The president called on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to "open up your state" and labeled her a "liberal hypocrite" since her husband sought to get his boat launched during the pandemic in May. Whitmer has said the request was a failed attempt at humor.

President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at an airplane hangar in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

"No president has done for Michigan what President Trump has done for Michigan,” said Trump at one point, before adding, "I am going to remember Michigan."

The president spoke for an hour and 15 minutes before a crowd estimated at about 5,000.The event occurred as Michigan limits outdoor public gatherings to 100 people to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, there are exemptions for First Amendment-protected events.

Democrats criticized Trump's rally in Michigan. Earlier in the week, Whitmer called the idea of the president "descending" on the state to gather people who may or may not be wearing masks "distressing to say the least." But Whitmer's office has said the governor doesn't make "individual enforcement decisions" when it comes to her executive orders.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, also slammed the president over the rally on Thursday morning. 

"He’s willing to put his supporters at risk if it helps him get re-elected," Kildee said.

Whitmer on Thursday also attacked Trump for reportedly downplaying the coronavirus in his comments to the American people ahead of the March outbreak across the United States.

"I think the biggest enemy of the state right now is the misinformation that's coming out of the head of state. And the biggest threat to the American people is the American president right now," she said.

Ronna McDaniel gets mentioned by Donald Trump during his speech. President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at an airplane hangar in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

Michigan had confirmed 109,519 cases of COVID-19 and 6,569 deaths linked to the virus as of Thursday. The state considers 80,678 Michiganians "recovered."

Thursday's Trump event symbolizes the president's recognition that the country needs to reopen its economy and needs to do it in a "healthy and safe way," said Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan native who is chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

“That's the reality for most Americans and most Michiganders that we can’t bunker down in our basement forever. We all have to go back to work," said McDaniel, criticizing Biden, who held smaller events on the campaign trail in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, Biden spoke to a small group outside a United Auto Workers hall in Warren and participated in a backyard conversation with four union members.

Earlier Thursday, hundreds of people were in a lengthy line outside the airport hangar in Freeland four hours before the president's speech was scheduled to begin. As they gathered, they went through temperature screenings and were told by campaign volunteers that masks would be required. But many people inside the venue weren't wearing masks.

Dawn Beattie of Eastpointe distributed hand sanitizer, telling attendees, "Compliments of the Don," referring to the businessman who's now president.

A large crowd queues outside the entrance to the Trump rally. President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at an airplane hangar in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

Michigan is crucial for both Biden and Trump in Nov. 3's election. In 2016, Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee to carry Michigan since 1988.

Biden led the Republican incumbent 47% to 42% in a poll of 600 likely Michigan voters released by The Detroit News and WDIV on Tuesday. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Trump won Saginaw County, where Freeland is located, by 1 percentage point in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Two years later, Whitmer beat Republican Bill Schuette by about 8 points in the county on her way to becoming governor.

The president made sure to emphasize how he has delivered for Michigan, saying he obtained "millions of dollars" to save the Soo Locks. Congress approved an initial $75 million to modernize the Soo Locks after Trump made it a priority, and the president proposed another $123 million in this year's budget before the pandemic struck. 

Bethany Burns of Bay City gets her temperature checked prior to entering the rally by Tom Krzeszewski of Swan Creek Township. President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at an airplane hangar in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

Trump also mentioned his major disaster declaration after the failure of Edenville Dam in May. He noted the dam was owned by a private company, Boyce Hydro.

“I think we’re going to have to sue the ass off the company,” Trump said.

Trade policy barbs

Trade policy promises to be a key issue in the fall campaign, and it was a focus of Trump's speech. In January, he signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Under the new deal, automakers will have to produce cars with 75% of parts originating from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment, up from NAFTA's 62.5% level.

Volunteers perform temperature checks for rally attendees. President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at an airplane hangar in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

But when the president talked about the auto industry, he tended to exaggerate his contributions to its success.

"On Nov. 3, Michigan, you better vote for me I got you so many damn car plants," Trump argued at one point.

But the state has lost one assembly plant and two parts facilities during his presidency. It picked up at least one autonomous vehicle-making plant. 

General Motors Co. has closed its Warren transmission factory as part of its new United Auto Workers union contract but revived it this year as a place to manufacture masks for the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford Motor Co. is closing its Romeo engine plant as part of its UAW contract. Fiat Chrysler closed a Detroit assembly plant in 2017.

FCA is building a new Jeep plant in Detroit on the site of the Mack Avenue Engine Complex, which has two facilities that are being converted into a new factory for manufacturing Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicles. The Center for Automotive Research doesn't consider it to be a new factory on net. 

In 2019, the Google self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC also opened a Detroit plant refashioned from a factory on the campus of American Axle & Manufacturing near Hamtramck. 

At one point during his speech, Trump hedged his language, complaining he doesn't get credit for factories that expand.

While the president took credit for saving the auto industry, it initially revived during the Obama administration in the wake of the Great Recession. President Barack Obama forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and loaned them and their lending arms about $55 billion after President George W. Bush loaned them $25 billion near the end of 2008.

President Trump claps and smiles as he introduces US Senate candidate John James. President Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at an airplane hangar in Freeland on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

Auto sales recovered during the Obama administration along with the economy that grew at a 2% rate — which Trump criticized as too slow during his 2016 campaign.

The president noted in his talk that he has cut regulations to help spur business and keep the economy growing. 

When Trump took office, auto sales already had grown for six consecutive years under Obama. Sales expanded for another year in 2017 to 17.55 million units before gradually declining in 2018 and 2019. But sales have remained above 17 million units for five consecutive years, including the first three years of the Trump presidency — a historic industry achievement. 

On Wednesday, Biden unveiled his own plan to financially penalize companies that move jobs overseas and provide a tax credit for those who invest within the country's borders. Biden told a group of union workers in Detroit that Trump was allowing the country to go to "Hell in a handbasket economically."

"We’re not doing a thing about it," Biden said of Trump's administration.

Biden's campaign has also criticized Trump for failing to deliver on promises to increase auto manufacturing jobs. In Michigan, the number of auto manufacturing jobs has been lower each month of this year than it was in December 2016, before Trump took office, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that recently went into effect was essentially a full employment act for the auto industry, said Peter Navarro, Trump's director of trade and manufacturing policy.

“Joe Biden is a plagiarist," added the trade policy adviser, arguing the former vice president's new plan for penalizing companies that move jobs overseas mirrors plans advanced by Trump.

James gets a boost

During the Freeland speech, Trump repeatedly touted Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James and slammed his opponent, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, saying nobody knows him. James spoke for 20 minutes before the president arrived. 

The Peters campaign responded by arguing that "No Democratic senator has passed and enacted more laws during the Trump administration than U.S. Senator Gary Peters."

Don Schark, 50, was one of the hundreds in the crowd outside the airport hangar on Thursday afternoon to see Trump. He is from the Saginaw area and works in the skilled trades. He said about 80% of the people in his line of work support the president's re-election, and he criticized past presidents' stances toward China.

"We’re exporting our jobs to a country that doesn’t believe in what you do for a living, freedom of speech," Schark told a reporter. "They don’t believe in journalism They don’t believe in anything that we believe in.

"This is like the first candidate in 20 years that actually mentions this stuff.”

Trump last made a stop in Michigan on May 21, when he visited Ford Motor Co.'s Rawsonville Components Plant. His son, Donald Trump Jr., will participate Tuesday in an event in Harrison Township.

cmauger@detroitnews.com