SAN PEDRO, Calif. — Aboard a mighty and powerful battleship, Trump’s message lacked both might and power.
Speaking here, aboard the decommissioned USS Iowa one night before the second GOP debate debate, the frontrunner’s typically lengthy, rambling, and crowd-exciting address lasted a mere 15 or so minutes and seemed to lack his usual, and much-adored, flair.
Trump did hit his usual talking points: immigration, deficits with China and Japan, as well as thanks the host for his endorsement from the "Veterans For A Strong America" group who invited him to speak on the ship.
"We have illegal immigrants that are treated better by far than our veterans," Trump said. "It's not going to happen anymore."
He also promised that he would cut trade deficits with countries like China, Japan and Mexico because he has "smart people."
"I love free trade, the concept is great but you need smart people, I have the smartest people," he said to cheers.
Trump also insisted his personal skills on the international stage are superior to his opponents.
"I'm fighting some very nice people," he said. "But they're never going to do anything with these countries. They're never going to be able to do it. It's an instinct. It's something that's special. They don't have it."
But this speech had a new — and presumably unwanted — twist: the loud, raucous chorus of protesters let in from the street, chanting against Trump and his immigration policies.
The few hundred protesters brought signs and voices that carried their chants along the cool wind of the port and up to the deck of the crowded ship above. Almost all of the 850 attendees could clearly hear the “dump Trump” jeers below deck. Standing on the deck facing the Vincent Thomas Bridge, those aboard the ship could hear protesters in one ear and Trump in the other.
In introducing Trump, VSA’s Joel Arends said he departed from the group’s usual practice of not endorsing candidates because he sees 2016 as a pivotal moment.
In response to receiving the group’s endorsement, Trump said that he “didn’t expect it, didn’t ask for it” but “really appreciate[d]” earning it.
But Trump didn’t have time to bask in the glow of a new endorsement. Each time the crowd of supporters cheered, the protesters bellowed back to match them. His usual applause lines that made the American Airlines Arena in Dallas erupt in cheers and "U-S-A!" chants were met with smaller applause and hollers.
Even after the speech ended, the crowd lacked its usual post-event glow. Whereas crowd members one night earlier in Dallas walked out telling NBC News that they felt energized to spread the word about Trump, today the crowd shuffled out, seemingly unfazed by the celebrity-candidate they just spent time with.
One woman told NBC News that she and her husband watch all of Trump’s speeches; however admitted that she didn’t hear much that was new from him aboard the Iowa. Another man, a veteran, David Czapiewski, 56 ,responded that “yes” Trump seemed off his game tonight, but blamed the “spur of he moment” nature of the event on Trump’s uncharacteristically lackluster performance, not the protesters outside.
Despite that, Czapiewski is still a fan. “I thought he was great, he said. “And what he’s trying to tell these people here that showed up is support Americans that fought in wars and made it free for these people to even protest about him. And also, we wanna make America great again. That’s what it’s all about.”
A few moments later he conceded he liked Trump but still wasn’t sure "if he’s gonna make it" with competition from Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Jeb Bush.