Supporters giddy over Trump's visit to Western Pennsylvania
Carol Heinecke bundled up in her blue parka, put on a red "Make America Great Again" hat and piled onto a shuttle bus along with a few family members and friends eager to welcome President Trump to Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon.
"I'm thrilled to see President Trump in person," said Heinecke, 57, a mechanical engineer from Penn Township and a member of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee.
She said Trump appeals to her for being a "strong conservative Christian" and for his views on issues such as taxation, immigration and improving the economy by incentivizing big corporations to raise wages for lower-level employees.
Heinecke shrugged off questions about mounting concerns in the past week over whether Trump may be racist, saying she thinks some news outlets will cover "any possible story that they possibly can, and I think he's not racist. That's what I believe."
"Frankly," chimed in her husband, John Heinecke, 60, "I met him (Trump) in person when I worked for IBM, and he's a gentleman in business, and that's all I would say about that."
The couple attended the arrival event with their 26-year-old son, Jimmy Heinecke, who said he "supports everything (Trump) stands for." He isn't too worried about Trump making controversial remarks or causing serious harm via the likes of Twitter.
"He can be a little bit of a loose cannon sometimes, definitely, but I mean, I think we're all like that sometimes," Jimmy Heinecke said. "Locker talk, that sort of thing.
"It's just human nature. People say things that they wouldn't want to in another situation."
The White House invited about 150 Trump supporters — families with young children, deep-pocketed donors, veterans, college Young Republicans and local GOP officials — to attend Trump's arrival at the National Guard's 171st Air Refueling Wing at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Air Force One touched down shortly after 2 p.m.
The supporters stood in a fenced-off area on the tarmac and cheered Trump's arrival, prompting Trump to applaud back.
"It's so nice to come to Pittsburgh," Trump could be heard telling his supporters amid the loud rumbling of an aluminum tube emitting heat for the crowd. Temperatures hovered in the 20s, feeling extra frigid atop the wind-whipped tarmac.
Trump spent several minutes shaking hands, taking photos and signing autographs.
"He was friendly, very friendly. He shook my hand, he was just making comments, signing people's hats," said John Eizenhafer, 64, an industrial salesman from Irwin who's also a member of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee. "He sounds like he's for the working man."
Trump told the crowd that "he was going to keep pushing the agenda as far as the wall and taxes," Eizenhafer said.
Eizenhafer acknowledged that although he supports Trump, he would have been happy to see any president stepping off Air Force One and seeing the Secret Service security efforts involved firsthand.
"It's a lifetime memory," he said.
When Trump approached her section of the crowd, Carol Heinecke determined she had time either to shake his hand or get his autograph — and chose to have him sign a photo of himself while she showed off a "Welcome Trump" sign that included three life-sized cutouts of young children donning Trump gear.
"I told him we were praying for him and I told him my husband made the sign, and he said, 'Thank your husband for me,'" she said.
Trump waved goodbye, climbed into a black SUV and departed to give a 20-minute speech at H&K Equipment about eight miles away in North Fayette.
Trump stayed largely on message in a speech lasting about 20 minutes, taking credit for economic trends from job growth to the stock market's performance."You are my friends, you are truly great, great people,and you are making America tick,' he told the crowd at the end.— Wes Venteicher (@wesventeicher) January 18, 2018
Among those who traveled in the 24-vehicle presidential motorcade to H&K and back to the airport: state Rep. Rick Saccone, who is gearing up for a March congressional special election that has caught the eye of political strategists on both sides of the aisle.
Senior officials in the Trump administration had insisted that the President's visit would be a White House event to tout the Republican tax reform plan, not a political event. Trump suggested otherwise in a tweet posted before 8 a.m. touting his support for Saccone.
Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13). Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2018
Saccone, 59, an international and national affairs college professor, Air Force veteran and one of the General Assembly's most conservative members, is a five-term Republican state lawmaker from Elizabeth who has snared major financial backing from the GOP. Saccone casts himself as a tax-cutter who was "Trump before Trump was Trump."
He faces Democrat Conor Lamb in the race to replace Tim Murphy.
Murphy, a seven-term Republican congressman, resigned in October after allegations surfaced that he urged a woman he was having an affair with to have an abortion.
Lamb, 33, a Marine veteran, former federal prosecutor and scion of a well-regarded political family, is running as a moderate Democrat, focusing on the economy and the opioid epidemic.
Although Trump ended his first year in office with a 39 percent public approval rating and infuriated party leaders when he reportedly used profanity in immigration talks, Republicans are banking on his cache with voters in the 18th District, who gave him a 20-point margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump's appeal there came through loud and clear, even though Democrats held an 80,000-voter registration edge.
When asked whether Trump's visit would bolster Saccone's chances at winning, Carol Heinecke said, "I sure hope so. I think it could."
Departing Pittsburgh now, where it was my great honor to stand with our incredible workers, and to show the world that AMERICA is back - and we are coming back bigger and better and stronger than ever before! pic.twitter.com/kWPgylqFzj— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2018
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.