President Donald Trump held a roundtable discussion Thursday in White Sulphur Springs that was originally billed to highlight the impact of last year’s federal tax reform legislation. But, at various points, Trump veered off course to address issues such as immigration, trade, energy policy and the race for U.S. Senator Joe Manchin’s seat.
Before hearing from West Virginians about their families’ savings from a recent tax-reform bill, Trump focused heavily on immigration issues -- including his call for National Guard assets to be deployed to the U.S. - Mexico border. He attacked Manchin on the issue.
“We have very weak laws because of the Democrats and Joe. I mean Joe Manchin -- he's really not helped us on this stuff,” Trump said.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, West Virginia’s unauthorized immigrant population is estimated at 6,000 residents. Those in the crowd cheered each time Trump mentioned plans to build a wall along the southern border of the United States.
Finishing his opening remarks, Trump noted that he had gone off script. In that moment, he highlighted a theme that would run through the rest of the event.
“Now, I'm reading off the first paragraph [and saying] ‘This is boring.’ Come on, we have to say -- tell it like it is,” said Trump as he tossed a piece of paper into the air. “We have to get Republicans in office.”
The president and an audience of a few hundred then heard from a dozen local business owners and residents about recent tax reform legislation that they say has positively impacted their employees and families. Many in the group said the tax overhaul has helped them to the tune of thousands of dollars in savings.
In closing, Trump thanked Governor Jim Justice and Senator Shelley Moore Capito before directly acknowledging that Congressman Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey -- who were flanking the president at the table -- are both vying for the Republican nomination to unseat Manchin in November.
“Patrick and Evan, good luck. I don't know, you two. Good luck,” said Trump before asking the audience to cheer for Jenkins or Morrisey in a demonstration of how the crowd planned to vote in the upcoming GOP senate primary.
Jenkins garnered louder cheers than Morrisey.
“This is his congressional district,” said Morrisey, noting that the event was being held in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District -- which is currently seated by Jenkins -- and that the Senate race was statewide.
“It was fairly close,” replied Trump.
Manchin, who faces his own primary challenger in fellow Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, attended a memorial for the 29 men who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch disaster 8 years ago.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, another GOP candidate in the race for U.S. Senate, wasn't in attendance at the Thursday roundtable or the UBB memorial. Blankenship served one year in federal prison for willfully violating mine safety standards in the wake of the April 5, 2010 disaster.
In a statement about the tax reform discussion, Manchin called the event “political posturing” and said West Virginians failed to get answers on healthcare, Social Security, miners’ pensions and why some aspects of the tax reform plan aren’t permanent.
The primary election for open races for both parties is slated for May 8.