(WASHINGTON) — Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday night opted out of the latest 2024 Republican primary debate and instead spoke in Michigan about the ongoing auto workers’ strike.
The event was held as counter-programming to Trump’s rivals, who gathered in California on the debate stage as he attacked President Joe Biden, assailed the criminal charges against him and urged union employees to back him next year.
Unions this week drew the attention of both major parties’ presidential front-runners.
On Tuesday, Biden joined the picket line in Michigan with members of the United Auto Workers in the UAW’s ongoing strike while seeking 46% pay raises and a four-day work week, citing the high profits earned by their employers.
Trump and his campaign called Biden’s visit to the UAW picket line, which is unprecedented for a president in modern history, a “PR stunt.”
However, Trump’s Wednesday event in Clinton Township, Michigan — which the campaign had called a speech to union workers — took place at Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts plant.
According to ABC News’ reporting, many of the attendees at Trump’s speech were Drake Enterprises workers and some were UAW workers, but very few said they were on strike.
Unions and workers were dominant themes in Trump’s speech, though. He began by immediately “saluting” UAW workers and arguing that Biden doesn’t sincerely side with them, even as Biden’s aides have cited Biden’s long record in backing unions.
The crowd here cheered for nearly every line in Trump’s speech.
In his speech, Trump repeated his pitch for economic nationalism, calling himself the only candidate who wants to protect American labor — which was a key pledge in his previous campaigns.
He also attacked Biden for the federal government’s environmental regulation push on tailpipe pollution, which would encourage more electric vehicle manufacturing — while also raising the concerns of auto workers like those in the UAW. Biden has said he wants to invest in the auto industry to spur more electric vehicle use to address climate change.
Trump took a darker view.
“You’re all on picket lines and everything, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you get because in two years — you’re all going to be out of business. You’re not getting anything. What they’re doing to the auto industry in Michigan and throughout the country is absolutely horrible and ridiculous,” he said.
At the picket line on Tuesday, Biden said, in part, “Folks, stick with it because you deserve the significant raise you need and other benefits.”
On Wednesday night, Trump went on to criticize the heads of Ford and General Motors for not, as he said, fighting against electric vehicles and instead “giving up” too quickly. Both companies have signaled they see increased value in making more electric vehicles, given larger trends in the industry.
Trump later went after Biden again, saying the president treats American jobs as “disposable.”
“Joe Biden claims to be ‘the most pro union president’ in history. Nonsense,” Trump added.
Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, also said he spent most of his life “working alongside Americans just like you.”
After being told in an NBC News interview that UAW President Shawn Fain was fiercely critical of him, Trump said he did not want the union’s endorsement. On Wednesday, however, he struck a different tone.
“Hopefully your leaders at United Auto Workers will endorse Donald Trump,” he said.
Though Fain criticized Trump this week and said there would be “no point” in meeting with him, Trump called Fain a “good man” but said it was time to endorse him. Only then, Trump said, will he “not say a bad thing about them again.”
Trump’s message to the UAW president: endorse him so “you can take a nice two-month vacation come back and you guys are going to be better than you ever were.”
The former president said he wouldn’t force people away from electric vehicles but wanted to give people the opportunity to choose.
Of the GOP primary debate also held on Wednesday, Trump attacked some of his challengers, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and suggested it was a job interview for a lesser role in his administration.
He asked his crowd who they thought he should pick as his running mate. They yelled out for former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who was in attendance.
Trump also briefly talked about the indictments against him. He has pleaded not guilty in all four cases, two of which are related to the push to overturn the 2020 election; a third is related to hush money paid to an adult film actress; and a fourth is over Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents while out of office.
“Just like you’re fighting for your rights in your American dream, I’m fighting for my rights and fighting for my freedom against the coordinated … very politicized forces of evil. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Trump told the attendees.
He said his second presidency would be about “patriotic protectionism,” slamming the amount of money the U.S. has given to Ukraine and claiming he would bring more jobs back home.
Michigan Democrat responds
Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan reacted to Trump’s speech in an interview with ABC News minutes after he left the stage.
“I’m a car girl and the state of Michigan put the world on wheels,” she said, later adding, “Electric vehicles are one of the technologies of the future. We are going to build them here. I’m not ceding our leadership to anybody.”
Of Trump’s comments about the UAW strike being undercut by the push for electric vehicles, Dingell said: “He says these negotiations don’t matter? These negotiations are the most important negotiations I’ve watched in my lifetime. This is where the rubber hits the road.”
“I think it says it all when he says was coming in to meet with union workers and he chose to go to a non-union plant,” she said. “I think that just summarizes it right there. If he really did have strong support by union workers and he wanted to tell them how much he cared and how he cared about those benefits that unions fight for, then why didn’t he go to a union shop?”
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