UPDATED with details and video: Tonight’s violence at the site of a canceled rally in Chicago will help Donald Trump in the next round of voting, Donald Trump predicted on cable news.
“Two people that are experts told me this increases the vote for Trump,” the GOP front-runner told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the phone, about an hour after pulling the plug on the packed rally, triggering chaos in the hall.
In TV news coverage of the unfolding events, some talking heads challenged the motivation of the Trump campaign in staging the event at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion, given his rhetoric about Latinos and Muslims. The school is 22% Latino and maintains the largest Muslim population of any university in the city, according to the school’s information online. In a school with nearly 30,000 students, 15% identify themselves as Muslim, which translates to about 4,500 Muslims on campus.
“This is a classic strongman political tactic that we are used to seeing in other countries, but not our own – certainly not in the last 50 years or so – in which political events are generated to bring violence at the edges into the center,” blasted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Leading up to the rally, a school official warned students and faculty they might find themselves in a “dangerous or life-threatening situation” and urged students to demonstrate peacefully, reported city paper Chicago Reader. Nearly 10,000 Facebook users had planned to attend the anti-Trump protest planned at rally. Lines to get into the arena, which holds about 10,000 people, started as early at 3 AM and wrapped around the venue by afternoon.
On CNN, Stuart Stevens claimed Trump is “running as George Wallace.” But FNC’s Megyn Kelly insisted this was a story of Trump being stripped of his First Amendment rights.
“We should be able to have a rally in a major city in this country without having to have such a big deal,” Trump insisted to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, after local authorities, predictably, pulled the plug on the event. He called it an “important” event that “shows what’s going on in the United States.”
“This is pretty scary to watch,” CNN’s Jim Acosta reported inside the hall as the pandemonium broke out shortly after 6 PM local time. Hundreds of protesters inside the arena began celebrating the cancellation, some yelling “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” while others chanted, “We stopped Trump!” Outside the two sides shouted “Nazi!” and ‘Communist!” at each other.
As cable news net played video on a loop of Trump backers and opponents squaring off, and sometimes throwing punches, Matthews said to the candidate: “We’ve got television pictures now that are going to haunt this country for a while. I don’t want to get into racial stuff, but you can watch this thing – it has an ethnic factor.”
Trump said he met with law enforcement after flying to town. “I think we made the wise decision to cancel … even through our freedom of speech was violated totally,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon. “I don’t want to see anybody hurt, and you would have had some people possibly getting hurt – or beyond.”
Trump denied his past inflammatory rally rhetoric – a hot topic at last night’s GOP debate – or the choice of venue in any way led to tonight’s trouble in Chicago. “I don’t take responsibility,” Trump said.
Instead, he blamed the economy. “I think we have a very divided country, and I think it’s been that way for a long time,” he told Lemon. “It’s very sad to see. Frankly, it’s terrible. People are upset because they haven’t had a salary increase in 12 years…Our jobs are being taken away. … I think it’s largely economic.”
Trump maybe wasn’t the only candidate who thought the rally plug-pulling and violence would help him in next week’s five big primaries. In a hastily called news conference tonight, his chief GOP rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, tried to spin the situation, scolding, “When you have a campaign that disrespects the voters … that affirmatively encourages violence… you create an environment that only encourages this sort of nasty discourse.” Also speaking from Chicago, Cruz again hugged himself close to President Lincoln with a line about being able to discuss our “genuine and real differences … in a way that appeals to our better angels instead of our worst instincts,” he said,
Images being shown on TV made it clear the arena mayhem was part of an “organized efforts to disrupt this event,” another GOP candidate, Marco Rubio, chimed in by phone on CNN. “This is not the sort of organic thing that happens.”
On the other hand, he added: “Mr. Trump needs to own up that the rhetoric he has used at some of his events has also contributed to the climate that you’ve seen. … There are consequences to the things people say in politics.”
In a statement issued within the packed hall about half an hour after he was supposed to appear, Trump’s campaign said, “For the safety of all of the tens of thousands people that have gathered in and around the arena, tonight’s rally will be postponed to another date. Thank you very much for your attendance, and please go in peace.”
Once the arena was cleared, thousands remained outside, flooding the streets.
Today’s incident mark the first time an event has checked Trump, who largely has controlled the tone and substance of the presidential race since he threw his hat in the ring last summer. “Mr. Trump and the Republican leaders who support him and his hate-filled rhetoric should be on notice after tonight’s events,” Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org, said tonight in a statement to that point. “These protests are a direct result of the violence that has occurred at Trump rallies and that has been encouraged by Trump himself from the stage. Our country is better than the shameful, dangerous and bigoted rhetoric that has been the hallmark of the Trump campaign.”
He added: “To Donald Trump, and the GOP, we say, welcome to the general election. Trump and those who peddle hate and incite violence have no place in our politics and most certainly do not belong in the White House.”
The violence broke out less than 24 hours after CNN’s Jake Tapper grilled Trump during a GOP debate in Miami about previous incidents at his rallies and Trump’s calls for violence against protesters. Tapper ticked off a list of Trump comments at rallies:
On February 23, Trump said of a protester: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
On February 27, Trump said of a protester: “In the good old days, they’d have ripped him out of that seat so fast.”
On February 1, Trump told attendees if anyone in the hall tried to throw a tomato at the stage, ‘Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously, OK just knock the hell — I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise.”
Trump defended those statements, placing blame on the “bad dudes” at some of his rallies, who have “have done bad things. They are swinging, they are really dangerous, and they get in there, they start hitting people.”
Among the incidents of violence at Trump events, a Time magazine photographer was put in a chokehold by a Secret Service agent who threw him to the ground at a rally as the photographer was attempting to record protesters. This week, a reporter for Breitbart News alleges Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski yanked by by her arm as she tried to put a question to the candidate at a news conference.