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“You little pencil neck”: Trump’s taunts of Schiff in Toledo were like a parody of a playground bully

The president’s first rally of 2020 put his hostility to blue-state Democrats on stark display.

President Donald Trump Holds “Keep America Great” Campaign Rally In Toledo, Ohio
President Trump speaks in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday night.
Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump had a brief, unusual moment of radical honesty toward the end of his rally on Thursday night in Toledo, Ohio.

During a portion of his speech in which he was heaping scorn on the “stone-cold crazy” and “radical” Democrats, Trump paused and said, “You know, it’s interesting, as I’m saying this stuff — you know, ‘they want crime, they want chaos’ — I’m saying all this stuff, and then I say, ‘Gee, I understand why they hate me!’”

But as soon as those self-reflective words left his lips, Trump returned to bashing Democrats as “vicious, horrible people.”

“What they do to people is a disgrace,” Trump said.

While Trump did make some news with his comments about why he approved a drone strike in Iraq last Thursday that killed top Iranian military official Qassem Soleimani — more on that later — his first rally of 2020 was similar to ones he’s delivered throughout his presidency. He lied about a number of things and went to extreme lengths to glorify himself, at one point taking credit for a purported religious revival in evangelical churches.

“The evangelicals called, some of the greatest pastors, ministers, preachers — and they just called today, five of the most respected people, and they said things that were incredible,” claimed Trump. “They said, ‘there’s never been anything like this in the church ... we’ve never seen enthusiasm like we see for this president and this presidency.’”

He bashed journalists (“there are some really bad ones, some really sick ones”), struggled through his familiar closing lines, and dehumanized undocumented immigrants as “thugs.” But as unusual as those sorts of things would be coming from the president in any other era, they’re par for the course with Trump.

But Trump’s speech in Toledo was notable for how he turned his invective against Democrats up to 11. Even in the wake of him getting impeached for allegedly trying to leverage diplomacy into an opposition research operation for his campaign, it seems his strategy to win reelection is to push whoever his Democratic opponent ends up being into the gutter and fight with them there.

“You little pencil neck”

One of Trump’s specific grievances in Toledo was that Democrats haven’t applauded him for taking out Soleimani in a strike that may push the US and Iran to the brink of war.

“Here’s a guy who slaughtered and butchered civilians all over, and military — whoever was in his way — and we have Bernie [Sanders] and Nancy Pelosi, we have them all, they’re all trying to say, ‘How dare you take him out that way! You should get permission from Congress. You should come in and tell us what you want to do ... so that we can call in the fake news back there, and we can leak it!’” Trump said.

While most Republican lawmakers have applauded the strike, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have concerns about Congress’s lack of involvement in Iran policy. As my colleague Alex Ward noted, they “are frustrated with how top Trump Cabinet officials ... have handled communication about Soleimani’s death. They argue the administration failed to give them an adequate briefing as US-Iran tensions roil, and that it continues to do so.”

But it was Democrats who drew most of the president’s ire.

Trump focused his fire on one of the key Democratic figures in the impeachment process — House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) — with insults that were like a parody of a playground bully.

“You little pencil neck,” Trump said, prompting his audience to break out in wild cheers. “He has the smallest shirt collar you can get, and it is loose.”

Schiff wasn’t the only prominent Democrat who received verbal abuse from Trump. The president responded to “lock her up!” chants directed at Hillary Clinton by saying, “Crooked Hillary — you should lock her up, I’ll tell you.” Without any apparent sense of self-awareness, Trump attacked former President Barack Obama for playing golf. He referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” demeaned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “crazy,” and described her San Francisco district as “one of the most disgusting” and “dirtiest” in the country.

While Trump portrayed his Democratic foes in an almost demonic light, he deified himself. In addition to his aforementioned comments taking credit for a religious revival, Trump whined about not already winning a Nobel Peace Prize and boasted about supposedly being more popular with Republicans than Abraham Lincoln.

Trump didn’t detail his policy vision for a second term. He didn’t delve into any nuance or subtlety. He viciously attacked Democrats and tried to draw a good-versus-evil contrast. And while the Trump fans who were in attendance clearly saw their president as fighting on the side of righteousness, the nearly 60 million people who voted for Democrats in last year’s midterm elections (not to mention the international community) have good reason to wonder what’s really going on in a country where such a speech is delivered behind the presidential seal.

Trump added to confusion about the Soleimani strike

Trump’s rally in Toledo happened exactly one week after the president approved the killing of Soleimani — a strike that the Pentagon said was to stymie “plans” Soleimani was “actively developing,” but that other administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially justified in terms of averting a supposed “imminent threat.” The administration has downplayed that “imminence” in the days since, and the rally only added to the confusion.

The Toledo event began with Vice President Mike Pence seemingly admitting that the “imminent threat” talking point was not the motivating concern.

“When one American life was lost at the hands of Iranian-backed militias just a few short weeks ago, President Trump launched the first airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in 10 years,” Pence boasted, portraying the Soleimani strike in retaliatory terms that puts the justification for it on shaky legal footing.

During his speech, however, Trump claimed without presenting any evidence that Soleimani “was actively planning new attacks, and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly, and we stopped him cold.”

If the difference between Pence’s and Trump’s comments seems confusing, Pompeo somehow made things worse during a Fox News interview that aired after the rally in which he tried to justify the Soleimani strike using both talking points simultaneously and in a self-contradicting manner.

Trump, however, seemed to allude to his real motivations for taking out Soleimani during his speech in Toledo.

“You saw, this was the anti-Benghazi,” Trump said at one point, contrasting his response with demonstrations at the US Embassy in Baghdad that were linked with Soleimani with Obama’s after government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, were attacked in 2012. “We did it the exact opposite of Benghazi.”

As is often the case when trying to explain Trump, in some manner, all roads lead to Obama.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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