WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Tossing his "boring" prepared remarks into the air, President Donald Trump on Thursday unleashed a fierce denunciation of the nation's immigration policies, calling for tougher border security while repeating his unsubstantiated claim that "millions" of people voted illegally in California.
Trump was in West Virginia to showcase the benefits of Republican tax cuts, but he took a big and meandering detour to talk about his tough immigration and trade plans. He linked immigration with the rise of violent gangs like MS-13 and suggested anew that there had been widespread fraud in the 2016 election.
"In many places, like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that," Trump said. "They always like to say, 'Oh, that's a conspiracy theory.' Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people. And it's very hard because the state guards their records. They don't want us" to see them.
While there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in the U.S., past studies have found it to be exceptionally rare.
Trump initially claimed last year that widespread voting fraud had occurred in what appeared to be a means of explaining away his popular-vote defeat. Earlier this year the White House disbanded a controversial voter fraud commission amid infighting and lawsuits as state officials refused to cooperate.
In recent weeks, Trump has been pushing back more against the restraints of the office to offer more unvarnished opinions and take policy moves that some aides were trying to forestall. His remarks in West Virginia, like so many of his previous planned policy speeches, quickly came instead to resemble one of his free-wheeling rallies.
"This was going to be my remarks. They would have taken about two minutes," Trump said as he tossed his script into the air. "This is boring. We have to tell it like it is."
As he has done before, Trump conjured images of violence and suffering when he described the perils of illegal immigration, though statistics show that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than citizens. He dubbed MS-13 gang members "thugs" and said his administration's crackdown on the group was "like a war."
"MS-13 is emblematic of evil, and we're getting them out by the hundreds," said Trump, who sat on stage at a long table in a gym draped in American flags and decorated with signs that read "USA open for business." ''This is the kind of stuff and crap we are allowing in our country, and we can't do it anymore."
Invoking the lines of his June 2015 campaign kickoff speech, in which he suggested that some Mexican immigrants were rapists, the president mused about the threat of violence among immigrants and appeared to make reference to a caravan of migrants that had been working its way north through Mexico toward the United States.
"Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened? Everybody said, 'Oh, he was so tough,' and I used the word rape," he said. "And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that."
It was not clear what Trump was referring to. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump wasn't talking about the caravan but rather about extreme victimization of those making the journey north with smugglers in general. And press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said that she was "not sure why the media is acting like this isn't a well-established fact — women and young girls are brutally victimized on the journey north."
Trump also defended his proposed tariff plan, which many of his fellow Republicans fear will start a trade war with China. He criticized West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has expressed openness to working with the White House, for opposing the GOP tax plan. He praised attendees Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, both running in the Republican primary for Senate next month, suggesting an applause test between the two. And, of course, he reminisced about his 2016 electoral victory in the Mountain State.
All of that overshadowed any time spent promoting the tax plan.
It underscored the frustration of many congressional Republicans with the president's frequent indiscipline. Many members of his own party have blamed the president's lack of focus for helping to stymie their agenda, and they are eager for him to focus on the tax cut, the most significant legislation achievement on which to run in the upcoming midterm elections.
While Trump went off script, the attendees — an assemblage of state politicians, local business owners, workers and families — stayed dutifully on task, talking about how the tax cuts have helped them.
One woman, Jessica Hodge, tearfully told Trump: "I just want to say thank you for the tax cuts. This is a big deal for our family." Jenkins said that "West Virginians understand your policies are working" and that Trump was "welcome to come back any time."
SIOUX CITY -- Eleven months ago Natasha Hongsermeier visited with me about the 2017 Morningside College tennis team, her upcoming graduation from Morningside and her marriage to Sioux Cityan Danny Graves at Eppley Auditorium, just days after the commencement ceremony last May.
Mustang tennis aces both, I found a theme in the couple's "love" for one another and all things Morningside. Graves used a tennis ball to serve an engagement ring to his bride-to-be. Love and tennis, get it?
I saw Hongsermeier-Graves again last week, as the 2017 graduate (she was a triple major: biology, chemistry, music) set aside a few minutes from her duties in the college's admissions department. We visited about her first year of work, the couple's first year of marriage, and their approaching trip to Thailand, where they're recreating now. (Natasha hoped to become dive certified on the trip, so she could better access the country's expanse of coral reef.)
She's serious about enjoying sights now, as much of her leisure soon ceases. Life grows serious in a matter of months for Hongsermeier-Graves, who enters medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha come August. The 5-year program involves three years of medical school, then a year working on a Master's, followed by another year of medical school, likely in neurology or neurosurgery.
"I'd love to figure out more pieces to the puzzle of Alzheimer's," she said. "It's fascinating how little we know."
Hongsermeier-Graves is aided in her quest by the Dennis R. Washington Leadership Scholarship, via the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. The native of Phillips, Nebraska (population 287) is one of seven students nationwide to earn the honor this year, a scholarship that totals $120,000 during her medical school endeavor.
Securing the prize was both humbling and a big relief for this first-generation college student.
"My anticipated cost for medical school prior to that scholarship was $278,000," she said. "I'll still have $158,000 left, so that scholarship, you see, is really helpful. I am super grateful."
Hongsermeier-Graves submitted two essays and had two letters written on her behalf as part of an application that also included her transcript, resume, awards, items of community service and academic qualifications. She was one of 13 applicants invited to a three-pronged interview aboard a yacht at San Diego, California.
"The yacht had a helicopter on it," she said with a laugh. "Part of the interview process included a dinner on the yacht."
Hongsermeier-Graves said she left for California and failed to pack clothing for the glitzy dinner interview. She pulled into a WalMart and bought clothes for that night. "I felt way out of my league," she said.
She shouldn't. A spotless academic record coupled with extracurricular activity (softball, tennis, music), a trip to the NAIA national tennis meet and a music therapy program this musician founded for hospital patients show she compares favorably to anyone. Beyond that, there's a tireless work ethic, one fostered on the family farm, a diverse operation boasting corn, soybeans and cattle.
"We also have a custom-haying business in the summer," Hongsermeier-Graves said.
Speaking of summer, she and Danny drove to Maine last summer, days after their wedding, to experience New England before settling in to jobs at a biomedical research lab.
She returned to Sioux City in the fall to call on high school students and arrange Morningside visits for juniors and seniors who had the college on their short lists. Danny, meantime, finished his work as an education major, student-teaching last fall before entering the profession as a substitute teacher and tennis coach.
Danny Graves also played in a couple of professional tennis tournaments in Florida over the winter. Natasha laughed and said she's served as his agent, lining up those tournament appearances, handling his travel arrangements and helping him warm-up before competition.
She might be the only tennis agent to have secured the Dennis R. Washington Leadership Scholarship this year. I'm guessing she's the only one who played tennis, softball and the flute while simultaneously tackling three majors as an undergrad.
Out of her league? Not this Morningside College ace.
SIOUX CITY -- At a time when a Sioux City lawmaker is opposing the move, the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services is coming to Northwest Iowa counties to research whether Woodbury County can work alone or must be in a multi-county region in delivering mental health services.
State Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, in a Sunday column for the Journal announced he will oppose Woodbury County as stand-alone, one-county region for 2018-19.
"I will be submitting a letter to DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven that discourages any exemption for Woodbury. The purpose of regionalization was to find cost efficiency among shared services and to improve mental health care for citizens," Hall said.
"(Jeremy) Taylor’s plan strikes out on both," Hall said, in reference to the Woodbury County Supervisor who has led the charge to leave the current region and to join another.
Taylor in an interview said Hall's stance is "misguided."
"I believe his letter will have little consequence. Woodbury County is looking with optimism to the long-term future of providing high-quality mental health services," Taylor said.
The supervisors last week voted to apply to the IDHS for an exemption from the state requirement to be in a regional service system for the delivery of mental health and disability services to low-income and other people.
The supervisors are looking to leave the three-county Sioux Rivers Regional Mental Health and Disability Services for the seven-county Rolling Hills Community Service Region. But there is one year before that may happen, so they want Woodbury County to function as a solo county for fiscal year 2018-19.
Taylor for months has contended that departure is necessary, since there is a poor relationship with Sioux and Plymouth counties in the agency.
Taylor this week said IDHS leader Jerry Foxhoven is coming for a visit on April 13 "to talk about the exemption process for Woodbury County."
Taylor said that beyond meeting with Woodbury County officials, Foxhoven is anticipated to "meet with a representative from Sioux, Plymouth and Woodbury counties regarding the disposition of a building that belongs to the three counties, as well as any other guidance he believes is necessary to the continuation of mental health services in the area."
The state changed from a county-based to a regional method of delivering mental health services for low-income people and others in 2014, and counties joined together into regions. Woodbury, Sioux and Plymouth counties formed the Sioux Rivers group.
DHS oversees the division of counties into regions. Only Polk County, the largest county in Iowa, has been allowed to work alone.
Hall said Woodbury County is paying $3.1 million now for mental health services, but that is projected to rise to $3.3 million next year.
"Not only was the cost more affordable, but because of shared services, Woodbury residents received about $4.3 million of mental health services while paying significantly less. By all appearances, taxpayers will pay more under Taylor’s plan and receive fewer services in return," Hall said.
Taylor said Hall misunderstands the situation at hand.
"Chris Hall’s comments repeat inaccurate talking points that do not understand the fiscal nor concerns of mental health issues in Woodbury County or our largest provider, Siouxland Mental Health Center...It’s misguided to attempt to force Woodbury County into a continued bad situation for political reasons," Taylor said.
Hall added that the best outcome for the 2018-19 year is for Woodbury County officials to "put aside differences for 12 months with Plymouth and Sioux counties. The issue is more important than the political gripes."
There is no certainty Woodbury County will ultimately be in Rolling Hills by 2019. The process is that three separate votes are required in order for Woodbury County to join Rolling Hills -- one was taken in late March by the Rolling Hills governance board to forward the recommendation to the seven county boards of supervisors, plus a majority vote by those boards over the next few weeks, then a final majority vote by the Rolling Hills governing body.
Those seven county boards will likely be making their decisions by the end of May.
Rolling Hills Community Service Region is comprised of Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford and Ida counties.