Days after the American Legion clashed with the White House over its response to the death of U.S. Sen. John McCain, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated President Donald Trump’s support for veterans at the Legion’s national conference in Minneapolis.
“We will always fight for you,” Pence told several hundred people at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Thursday — his second visit to Minnesota this month.
Earlier this week, Trump responded to McCain’s death by lowering the White House flag to half-staff only briefly and giving a terse statement. That prompted the Legion to issue a statement urging Trump to make “an appropriate presidential proclamation” about McCain, a war hero, and keep the flag at half-staff through McCain’s interment.
Trump relented Monday, lowering the flag again and releasing a statement recognizing McCain’s “service to our country.”
Pence didn’t directly address the controversy with conventioneers Thursday, but took a moment to pay tribute to the late senator.
“I can assure you, America will always remember and honor the lifetime of service of United States Senator John McCain,” he said. “And by honoring him, we also honor all of you.”
Pence called Trump an “ally and champion” for veterans and listed the work the administration has done on behalf of vets, such as improving access to mental health services.
At a fundraiser for the GOP in Bloomington later in the day, he pressed the state’s Republicans to unite after this month’s primary, which featured a contentious gubernatorial battle between former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and surprise winner Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.
With the November midterm election fast approaching, Pence’s trip marked the third time in just over a month he or Trump visited — an indication of just how focused the administration is on winning a state Trump barely lost in 2016. The Minnesota races are considered to be among the most competitive in the nation.
Trump hosted a rally in Duluth in late July to support Eighth Congressional District candidate Pete Stauber, a retired police officer and member of the St. Louis County Board. Then Pence visited Duluth earlier this month to offer more support for Stauber, who is locked in a competitive race with Democrat Joe Radinovich to replace Rep. Rick Nolan, who is vacating the seat.
‘Turn Minnesota red’
Pence started his speech at Thursday’s private fundraiser by echoing what Trump told those attending the Duluth rally: If the White House had visited Minnesota just one more time in 2016, Trump may have triumphed here.
“We all believe that,” state Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said. “They are certainly putting their strategy where their words are.”
While the fundraiser at a Bloomington hotel was closed to the media, Carnahan said about 400 people attended to hear Pence restate the Republican Party’s vow to “turn Minnesota red.”
In addition to supporting Stauber, Pence urged Republicans to unite around First Congressional District candidate Jim Hagedorn, Seventh Congressional District candidate Dave Hughes and the two Republican Senate candidates, Jim Newberger and Karin Housley. Johnson also introduced Pence.
“There was a lot of energy in the room,” Johnson said afterward.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer and Rep. Jason Lewis also attended the fundraiser. The only Republican member of the congressional delegation not present was Rep. Erik Paulsen, who has been trying to distance himself from Trump in his campaign.
The ticketed event cost $150 per person (or $2,500 per person for a photo-op with Pence). But Carnahan said she hopes it isn’t the last visit to Minnesota by Trump or Pence before November.
“He said Minnesota is one of the most important states this election cycle,” Carnahan said, adding that the state hasn’t usually been a priority nationally — until now. “To see our state finally flip ... we will make history.”
Afterward, Pence traveled to Milwaukee to raise money for U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir.
‘Freedom isn’t free’
Earlier Thursday, Pence addressed the Legion during the final day of its 100th national convention in Minneapolis, which also hosted the Legion’s first convention in 1919.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz, the Democrat who is running for Minnesota governor, also spoke to conventioneers this week.
In his nearly half-hour speech, Pence thanked veterans and talked about how war affected his father, who served in the military. He also discussed the Trump administration’s work to reform the VA by clearing the backlog of cases, reducing wait times for assistance and making it easier for vets to get mental health services for the “invisible wounds of war.”
“We are with you,” Pence said. “You do not carry that burden alone.”
Pence said unemployment for veterans is at its lowest level in nearly 20 years and boasted that the administration plans to spend much more, not less, on the military. “The era of budget cuts to our armed forces is over,” he said.