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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — It’s still a “hoax” to President Donald Trump.
Just hours after the nation’s top intelligence officials warned about Moscow’s efforts to disrupt a second consecutive American election, Trump said at a campaign rally here Thursday night that his diplomatic efforts with President Vladimir Putin “are being hindered by the Russian hoax.”
The two events created a split-screen effect: America's intelligence experts warning voters that Russia is trying to undermine democracy while Trump tells them it's all political chicanery.
Several of Trump’s top lieutenants — National Security Adviser John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Security Agency chief Gen. Paul Nakasone — described the threat in the White House briefing room.
“Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” Wray said.
But Trump, whose operation is under federal investigation for possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, swiftly contradicted his advisers’ conclusion in the midst of thousands of boisterous supporters here.
"In Helsinki, I had a great meeting with Putin," he said. "We discussed everything — I had a great meeting. We got along really well. By the way, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. That's a really good thing. Now we're being hindered by the Russian hoax. It's a hoax, OK? I'll tell you what, Russia's very unhappy that Trump won, that I can tell you."
In Helsinki, Putin said that he had hoped Trump would win the 2016 presidential election.
Trump was in Wilkes-Barre on Thursday to try to energize Republican voters before the very midterms that his aides say are under attack by Russia.
While that effort included a litany of Trump's favorite stump-speech attacks on Democrats, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to Rep. Maxine Waters of California, as well as a recitation of highlights of the Trump economy, he emphasized his push to reduce both legal and illegal immigration.
Speaking at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza — named for the father of one of Trump's targets, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. — Trump said he will soon get "very nasty" to achieve his goal of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
In a part of the country where antipathy toward undocumented immigrants runs hot, Trump complained about the resistance he’s met in Washington and falsely accused the younger Casey of supporting calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
And while Trump gave shout-outs to a string of Republican candidates, including GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner and Rep. Tom Marino, he reserved his biggest praise for Rep. Lou Barletta, who is the party’s underdog candidate against Casey.
“He’s a great political person. He’s a leader,” Trump said, as the crowd cooed “Louuuuu!” in unison. “When he wants something for Pennsylvania, he’s brutal.”
And Trump trashed Casey.
“Bob Casey was joining President Obama and his horrible attacks on our clean-coal industry,” Trump said. “Bob Casey was making it absolutely impossible for the miners, and Lou Barletta was fighting on behalf of miners, our miners, our companies and our beautiful Pennsylvania clean coal. And Lou won, and so did I and so did you. … We won that war on coal.”
Casey's campaign has run an ad featuring a retired coal miner praising him for fighting for health benefits.
Barletta has a special connection with Trump voters here in northeastern Pennsylvania because, as the mayor of Hazelton, where 40 percent of the population is Hispanic, he attained national fame for trying to stop undocumented immigrants from being able to rent housing or gain employment in his city. The crowd’s response to Barletta, who spoke briefly, rivaled their adulation for Trump.
But that points to a problem for both men: the more they energize base voters, the more they risk alienating folks in the middle.
As Trump campaigns for re-election — and for Republican candidates in the midterms — his biggest challenge is retaining the support of the industrial states like this one that provided his margin of victory in 2016. If some traditionally Republican voters outside major cities are drifting away, that means Trump and his allies in Congress need to find every last vote in smaller cities and rural areas.
The votes here in Luzerne County, part of the coal rich Wyoming Valley, were a vital piece of the statewide coalition for Trump, who campaigned heavily on boosting the coal economy, cutting down on immigration and negating bad trade deals.
Trump won the county 58 percent to 39 percent, four years after President Barack Obama captured it with 52 percent of the vote, and his 26,000-plus-vote edge over Hillary Clinton, who campaigned repeatedly in nearby Scranton, was more than half his statewide margin of fewer than 45,000 votes.
While Trump didn’t take neighboring Lackawanna County — also a traditional stronghold for Democrats — he held Clinton to a four-point margin, compared with the 27 points Obama won it by in 2012.
But there are signs across this state, just as there are in the other states that were crucial to Trump’s Electoral College victory, that voters aren’t thrilled with his performance.
In June, a Franklin and Marshall University survey revealed that only 35 percent of the state’s voters — nearly the same as the 36 percent in northeastern Pennsylvania — said Trump was doing an excellent or good job as president. The statewide figure was up from 30 percent in March — but certainly lower than he would like.
“Trump’s approval has bounced around since he was elected, but overall has been pretty consistent throughout his term,” said Berwood Yost, co-director of the F&M poll. “What I think is interesting is if you look at where Obama was at a similar point in his presidency, Trump and Obama are similar in their positive ratings. But there are more people who feel that Trump is doing a poor job and give him a low rating than people who thought that about Obama.”
But Trump has remained in good stead among his core supporters.
“His approval rating has not changed in the counties he won,” Yost said.
An NBC News poll released last week found that Trump’s approval rating is 36 percent in both Michigan and Wisconsin, compared to 54 percent disapproval in Michigan and 52 percent disapproval in Wisconsin.
Had Trump lost all three states — he won them by fewer than 80,000 votes combined — Clinton would have been president.
And Trump talked at length Thursday night about the 2016 election, and just how long it took the "fake news" media to call Pennsylvania for him. Trump sprinkled attacks on the media throughout his remarks, and the crowd yelled "C-N-N sucks," as his audiences are prone to do.
There was a certain symmetry to his attacks on journalists and his claim of a Russia hoax. Both were refuted by administration officials earlier in the day. In the case of the media, it was his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump who countered one of the president's claims.
She told the news website Axios that she does not agree with her father that the media are "the enemy of the American people." Her father found support from his spokeswoman, though, as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined an opportunity Thursday to break with the president on his enemy-of-the-people formulation.