Hundreds of President Trump’s supporters marched into a high school gymnasium Monday and began blistering their new perceived enemy: CNN’s chief White House correspondent.
“Fake News Jim!” they chanted loudly at Jim Acosta as one woman confronted him near his seat in the press pen and then as he positioned himself in front of a camera for a live hit.
“Go home, Jim!” they added later — a taunt that sounded especially menacing when aimed at a reporter with a Hispanic surname and a father who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
These were tense moments. But before long, Acosta made his way to the metal barricade separating the media from the angry horde assembled at the latest Donald Trump rally. He posed for selfies, first with a kind woman who genuinely seemed to want one, and then with others who appeared more eager to share the moments ironically on social media.
Then something even stranger happened: Acosta began signing autographs. A slip of paper here, a campaign sign there. Even the bill of one “Make America Great Again” hat. Eventually one of his most persistent hecklers — a young man with a long, scruffy beard, wearing a MAGA cap backwards and a MAGA flag as a cape — engaged Acosta in a friendly conversation. By the end of the exchange, the Trump fan was begging Acosta for an on-air shoutout.
“I think it helps calm them down,” Acosta replied when asked why he indulged the same people who had been jeering him. “If I were to say no, it could make it more venomous.”
These scenes, hours before Trump’s event here for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, would be notable on any day. But they were particularly surreal and conspicuous coming on the same day that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who over the weekend had been asked to leave a restaurant because she works for Trump, called for civil debate “without fear of harm.” (One rally-goer waved a sign bashing CNN and MSNBC, praising Trump-preferred Fox News, and proclaiming loyalty to Sanders: “We love Sarah.”)
The stars aligned Monday. Between Sanders’ restaurant snub — which followed several other administration figures being accosted while dining out — and Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters encouraging such public pushback, the line between civility and civil disobedience is a blur.
Acosta has become a target for Trump supporters. His aggressive and showy style at White House press briefings rankles the president’s allies. Brad Parscale, Trump’s reelection campaign manager, has even used Twitter to call for Acosta to lose his credentials.
All of this, along with Trump’s typically bellicose and off-script remarks, rendered McMaster, the rally’s actual guest of honor, an afterthought. The governor, who inherited the job after Trump tapped Nikki Haley as his United Nations ambassador, is competing in a Republican runoff Tuesday after failing to win a majority of the vote in the primary earlier this month, despite Trump’s longstanding endorsement. Trump, in his hour-long speech, urged his supporters to vote for McMaster, in part to spare Trump from humiliating headlines if McMaster loses.
“Get your asses out tomorrow and vote,” Trump told the crowd.
There were also asides on filmmaker David Lynch, who recently complimented Trump; on late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, who recently expressed regret for a friendly interview he did with Trump during the 2016 campaign; and on former first lady Laura Bush, who last week wrote an op-ed criticizing Trump’s since-reversed policy of separating children from parents who cross the border illegally. McMaster was hardly mentioned after Trump’s opening remarks.
This is not new. The cost of securing Trump for your big rally is playing second fiddle to the president and his whims. And that’s what the people who attend these rallies want. They come for the show. And sometimes that means seeing (or starting) a fight with the media.
“You know, I don’t know a lot about him,” Trump supporter Roger Hill said of McMaster while waiting in line for Monday’s rally. “I just know that Trump was endorsing him.”
McMaster’s runoff rival, Marine veteran and businessman John Warren, also is being crowded out by Trump and his election eve assist. Last week Warren’s campaign released internal polling showing him with a slight lead over McMaster — and emphasized that the numbers were from the same pollsters that worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign. A Trafalgar Group poll released the same day showed McMaster with a 16-point lead, though the firm's polling over the weekend showed the race tightening.
“A lot of my supporters are going to be there because they support President Trump,” Warren said of the rally earlier Monday. “This is not a referendum on President Trump.”
But Warren didn’t get the theatrics of an Air Force One touchdown or a showdown with CNN. He offered those thoughts in the middle of a quiet lunch shift at the nearby Shoney’s.