LAS VEGAS (AP) — Eager to keep the Republican Party in control of the Senate, President Donald Trump pressed his tough anti-illegal immigration stance before supporters Saturday, saying "we have to be very strong" as he sought to help boost the candidacy of a one-time critic.
Trump was in Las Vegas to assist Dean Heller, the only Republican U.S. senator seeking re-election in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Trump and Heller have papered over their once prickly relationship to present a united front in their shared goal of helping Republicans maintain, if not expand, their thin 51-49 majority in the Senate in November's congressional elections.
Heller was among the officials waiting on the sweltering airport tarmac to greet Trump.
In remarks to several hundred often-cheering attendees at the Nevada GOP Convention, Trump portrayed himself as the toughest against illegal immigration, saying at one point, "I think I got elected largely because we are strong on the border."
But he excluded any mention of the fact that a massive public outcry, including from members of his own family, forced him to reverse course this week and end the practice of separating children from families after they illegally cross the southern border into the U.S.
"On immigration, we have to be very strong," Trump said, saying the immigration problem should have been solved years ago and blaming Democrats for causing it. "The fact is we need more Republicans because the Democrats are obstructionists."
Trump said Republicans are for "strong borders, no crime" and called it a winning issue for the party. He alleged that Democrats are for "open borders and MS-13 all over our country," referring to the violent street gang, adding that stance is a losing issue for the opposition.
Trump praised Heller for voting to cut taxes, and said U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, Heller's Democratic opponent, would vote to raise them. He declared that he had a "great nickname" for Rosen before allowing the audience to egg him into saying it: "Wacky Jacky."
The president noted that Rosen was in Reno with Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the state Democratic Party convention. He again referred to Warren as "Pocahontas" to ridicule her claims of Native American ancestry.
"Wacky Jacky is campaigning with Pocahontas. Do you believe this?" Trump said. "When you see that, that's not the senator you want."
Rosen responded quickly, first on Twitter, then saying in a statement that Trump's visit was Heller's "reward" for his loyalty to Trump.
"The President is attacking me with lies and petty insults because I'm not afraid to stand up to him," she said. "Dean Heller has been a rubber stamp for Donald Trump in Washington, caving to the President's divisive agenda at Nevada's expense."
Outside the convention, at least 300 people protesting Trump's policy of separating families at the southern border were stretched along a sidewalk outside the casino-hotel where the president met behind closed doors with supporters before addressing the Nevada GOP convention. His motorcade drove past a smaller group of people holding signs that said "Resist" and "History Has Its Eyes On You."
Trump also held a separate event promoting tax cuts he signed into law six months ago.
Heller had renounced Trump during the campaign as someone who "denigrates human beings" and suggested he wouldn't vote for Trump, but later said he did. Heller also donated to charity a $2,000 donation he received from Trump in 2015.
Last year, Trump publicly scolded Heller for holding up the GOP's long-promised effort to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. He later repaired his relationship with Trump and helped deliver the rewrite of U.S. tax laws to Trump's desk.
Trump acknowledged the relationship was "a little shaky in the beginning" but said "nobody fought harder to cut taxes than Dean Heller."
Heller was among a group of Republican senators this week who urged the Trump administration to end the practice of separating families. Heller made no mention of the issue Saturday.
The president also intervened in Nevada's Senate race in March and persuaded Heller's main challenger, Republican Danny Tarkanian, to step aside and run for a U.S. House seat instead. Heller has said he didn't ask for the favor.
Trump said he would be back in Nevada "a lot" to campaign for Heller and other Republicans. He said a vote for Rosen is the same as voting for the Democratic leaders of Congress, Nancy Pelosi in the House and Chuck Schumer in the Senate, "and it's a vote for all of the problems they bring."
"I don't think you want that," he said.
Trump was accompanied by former top campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, now acting as outside advisers to the president. Days earlier, Lewandowski responded with "Wah-wah" during a Fox News Channel appearance after another panelist raised the case of a 10-year-old disabled girl who had been separated from her parents under Trump's immigration policy.
Convention-goers lined up to have photos taken with Lewandowski before Trump addressed the gathering.
The event marked Trump's second campaign appearance this week. He was in Minnesota on Wednesday for Pete Stauber, a Republican congressional candidate running in a traditionally Democratic district.
Trump is scheduled to stop in South Carolina on Monday to help boost Gov. Henry McMaster's fortunes on the eve of a Republican gubernatorial runoff. He is also scheduled to travel to North Dakota to campaign for Republican Kevin Cramer, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat seeking another six-year term in a state Trump won by 36 percentage points in 2016.
Associated Press writer Michelle Price contributed to this report.
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