ERIE — President Donald Trump came to Erie Insurance Arena on Wednesday riding high on what might have been the most successful two-week period of his administration.
Having narrowly won confirmation for his second appointee to the Supreme Court, sealed a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico and seen the announcement of record-low unemployment numbers, he had plenty to crow about.
The three accomplishments were among many trumpeted by the president during a campaign rally that was part highlight reel, part stroll down memory lane, part get-out-the-vote push for the upcoming midterm elections.
Trump pointed to legislation that has largely flown under the radar with the nation’s attention riveted by the controversial appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh — such as the Right to Try bill that expands access to experimental drugs for terminally ill patients and a Right to Choose law that expands access to doctors for veterans.
But like any crowd-pleasing entertainer, he played the greatest hits as well.
A half dozen references to “Crooked Hillary” drew some of the evening’s most prolonged boos from the crowd.
Several more references to “fake news” produced similar booing, with crowd members shaking their campaign signs as Trump gestured to members of the media on the arena floor.
When a reference to “fake news” was followed closely by another mention of “Crooked Hillary,” the result was almost inevitable, as though the crowd had been waiting for the opportunity: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” audience members chanted.
Not content merely to provoke the boos that were so generously provided by the crowd, Trump showed he could elicit adulation as well.
“Wasn’t that the most exciting evening of our lives?” he asked of election night in 2016.
Calling his administration “the greatest revolution ever to take place in our country,” he told the adoring thousands, “America is winning like never before because we are finally putting America first.
“After years of rebuilding other nations, we are finally rebuilding our nation,” he said to some of the loudest cheers of the evening.
Trump also made time during his address to share the stage with U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly and Lou Barletta, urging audience members to support the two Republicans in their races against Democrats Ron DiNicola and Sen. Bob Casey, respectively.
Echoing the two large banners hanging to behind both sides of the stage, Kelly sounded a theme that struck home with many in the audience.
“Promises made, promises kept,” he told the crowd before looking to Trump. “The strongest personality, the strongest president we have seen in our lifetime.”
Pausing as the crowd erupted in cheers, Kelly then led them in a chant of “USA! USA!”
Trump alluded to one of his latest promises in introducing Kelly, saying that for some time Kelly has been lobbying for the rehabilitation of beaches at Presque Isle.
“What the hell is Presque Isle?” Trump said he asked Kelly.
“We’re going to replenish the sand to Presque Isle — you know what Presque Isle is?” Trump then told the crowd. “We’re going to get him the sand.”
Trump’s appearance in Erie — his first since a campaign stop in August 2016 and the first visit by a sitting president since George W. Bush visited the city in 2004 — proved a tremendous draw, with hundreds in line to enter the arena more than four hours before the president was scheduled to take the stage.
Inside the arena, anticipation was high, with nearly all of the seats occupied by 5 p.m. About a half-dozen classic rock anthems blasted over the loudspeakers, making conversation difficult. Alternating with Elton John and Guns and Roses, announcements and Jumbotron videos reminded spectators of Trump’s campaign promises, recalled the predictions of his certain defeat and offered advice on how to behave in the event of demonstrations by protestors (raise your Trump campaign sign and shout “Trump, Trump, Trump” to alert the authorities). More than once the patient crowd erupted in applause as the announcement of Trump’s 2016 victory in Pennsylvania played above center ice.
More than anything, the dominant feeling in the audience seemed to be a combination of excitement and disbelief: excitement that they were about to see the president, disbelief that they were really about to see the president.
Among the audience were three generations of the Telliho family from Crawford County. Seated a couple of rows from the top of the arena, but with a good view of where the president would be standing in just hours, Jim and Naomi Telliho of Meadville were joined by Paula Smith, their daughter, and Haleigh Smith, their granddaughter, both of Saegertown.
For Paula Smith, as for many in the crowd, the large banners hanging behind the stage made an important statement. “Promises Made” read one; “Promises Kept” read the other.
“I’m happy he’s kept the promises he’s made,” Smith said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
Haleigh Smith, a sophomore at Saegertown Junior-Senior High, expressed her support as well.
“He’s created a lot of new jobs for everyone,” she said.
Jim and Naomi Telliho said they’ve seen an increase in patriotism since Trump took office and called him a cheerleader for the country — “the best we’ve ever had."
Naomi Telliho, in fact, was already looking forward to the midterm elections in November.
“I’m taking a vacation day for election day,” she said. “I did the same thing in 2016 so I could stay up late and watch the results.”
Across the arena and just a few rows up from the floor, Crawford County resident Jason Swartout was similarly looking forward to seeing the president up close and in personal, but he wasn’t sure about what to expect from the midterms.
The midterm elections should be viewed as a kind of report card on Trump’s performance, Swartout said, and while he wasn’t sure how they would turn out, he did not expect the “blue wave” of Democratic victories that some have predicted.
Like Smith, Swartout's one idea in particular stood out as the most important: “Promises kept.”
“What he says is true,” Swartout said. “You can’t argue with the economy, I don’t care who you are. You’re not out of work if you don’t want to be."
Though he wasn’t crazy about “the Twitter thing” and said that he held himself to higher ethical standards than Trump had at times demonstrated, Swartout was glad to support a president who speaks his mind.
“We didn’t elect a head pastor,” Swartout said. “We elected somebody to get our country back on track.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.