White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia (CNN)The 2018 midterm elections were expected to be the backdrop to President Donald Trump's remarks here on Thursday. Instead, they became the main event.
Trump targets Democratic senator in free-wheeling West Virginia event
Minutes after taking the stage, Trump went after the state's Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, for voting against the GOP tax reform bill and urged voters to vote him out of office.
"I thought he would be helpful because he talks," Trump said of Manchin. "But he votes against everything. And he voted against our tax cuts."
Next, he blamed Democrats -- once again name-checking Manchin -- for what he deemed to be the United States' "very weak" immigration laws, slamming family-based immigration and calling for the end of "catch and release" policies. He even revived his unsubstantiated claim that "millions and millions" of people voted illegally in the 2016 election, in which he won the presidency but lost the popular vote.
"In many places the same person in California votes many times," Trump said Thursday. "They always like to say, 'Oh that's a conspiracy theory.' It's not a conspiracy theory. Millions and millions of people, and it's very hard because the state guards their records."
The topic Trump was slated to focus on -- tax reform -- would have been lost on the West Virginia audience due to his lack of focus. But the panelists sitting alongside Trump at the roundtable event -- a medley of local business executives, employees and regular families -- accomplished the White House's goals, sharing personal stories of tax savings, bonuses and raises they attributed to the GOP tax law.
"Thank you for listening to us, thank you for fighting for us, thank you for caring enough," said Jessica Hodge, a business administrator, as she broke into tears.
Previewing the event, a senior White House official told CNN that Trump would focus on the tax reform proposals, which Republicans hope to make central to their efforts to hold onto their majorities in Congress. The official said Trump would likely target Manchin, but declined to say whether Trump would call him out by name.
Ultimately, Trump called Manchin out several times -- first over the tax reform bill, then over his opposition to an Obamacare repeal bill and even over "other things we don't like."
Trump's remarks at a roundtable touting his tax reform law came as he sat in between two of Manchin's would-be Republican opponents for the 2018 Senate election, GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Trump pointed out that the state's voters will soon "get a chance to get a senator" who will support his agenda.
Similar to an Ohio event last week, the roundtable was billed as an official White House event -- not a campaign event -- but Trump spent most of his time talking about electoral politics and repeatedly railed against Manchin, a Democrat who has supported some of the President's initiatives -- though not the biggest-ticket items.
Trump has been increasingly turning his focus to the 2018 midterm elections as Republicans look to keep their majority in Congress. Key to those efforts will be the roundtable-style events like the one Trump is holding in West Virginia, the senior White House official said, as Republicans look to focus their campaign messaging on the economic benefits of the tax law.
The event gave prominent screen time to two of the Republicans vying to unseat Manchin, but left out another top contender for the GOP nod -- the controversial coal mining executive Don Blankenship, who was released from prison just last year.
Even after the roundtable participants finished talking about the benefits of the tax reform legislation, it was clear Trump wasn't quite done talking about the 2018 midterms.
"Should we do a little test?" Trump asked the audience, while he sat sandwiched on stage between Morrisey and Jenkins.
"Who's voting for Patrick?" Trump said, drawing modest applause for Morrisey, the state's attorney general.
Next up was Jenkins.
"Who's voting for Evan?" Trump asked, drawing noticeably louder applause and whoops from the crowd.
Sensing the gap, Morissey leaned into the President and offered a point of order: "It's his congressional district!"