Hundreds left outside of President Trump’s rally in Des Moines days before Iowa caucuses

Just four days before the caucuses, President Trump rallied in Des Moines on recent progress with trade deals, while hundreds stayed outside to watch the president on a JumboTron.

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Katina Zentz

Normal Lettington, a U.S. Army veteran sits in a wheelchair outside of the VIP entrance outside of a rally for President Donald Trump at the Knapp Center on Thursday, January 30, 2020. Lettington is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has a few months left of life. Currently being treated in the veteran’s unit in the hospital, he cannot make most trips out to the public. Lettington made traveled to the event in hope of seeing President Trump in person.

Sarah Watson, Managing Editor


DES MOINES — Norman Lettington, a Navy veteran, sat in a wheelchair outside the handicap accessible entrance of a President Trump rally set in Des Moines. He reserved his ticket online, and waited with his wife outside the Knapp Center at Drake University in 20-degree weather, but security never let him in. He has Alzheimer’s and his wife said the next few months of his life will be critical with his health condition. He traveled hoping to see the president in person.

Hundreds of others reserved spots to see Trump, some driving hours, but set up outside the Knapp Center instead, where a JumboTron showed a series of surrogates — including Vice President Mike Pence — take the stage before the president himself.

Two Drake University freshmen, Victoria Campel and Angel Sila, reserved their tickets in December, before most of the public got a crack at reserving tickets for the event. They waited in line for two hours — a relatively short time, they said — compared with others they spoke with before they decided to leave. Sila said her professor told their class that people were camped out the night before to see the president.

Campel said her family didn’t support the president in 2016, but she wanted to see the president, which she said she considered to be a landmark event in her life. 

“This is not just any person in the United States, it’s not just a celebrity, it’s the president of the United States,” said Campel, a biology major. “So I thought ‘Wow, I’ll take advantage of this opportunity,’ because I would be the first in my family.”

As a student of color, however, she said all throughout the day her family and friends would text her or ask her in person if she felt safe to go to the rally. Her aunt called her and told her she didn’t feel comfortable with her attending, saying she was worried someone might target her for her skin color. 

“I wanted to get that proof that I got to see the president for my family,” she said. “I just had to be aware of my surroundings, and nothing’s happened so far.”

Around an hour and a half before the event, security officials told press waiting outside that the fire marshal wouldn’t let anymore people in. The Daily Iowan was among credentialed media outlets shut out, in addition to New York Magazine Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi, The Daily Beast Washington bureau chief Jackie Kucinich, NPR’s 2020 campaign reporter Scott Detrow, and many others — some of whom took to Twitter with reports of being yelled at by Trump staffers as fire marshals denied reporters entrance.

The Knapp Center, an athletic facility on campus where basketball and volleyball games are held, can seat 7,152 people, according to Drake Athletics. The venue is 112,000 square-feet on two levels. 

Isaiah and Leah Klave, both 20 years old, drove 45 minutes to Des Moines from Winterset, Iowa to see the president, waiting for about half an hour in line before turning around to go home. They said they weren’t perturbed by being kept out of the rally, praising the campaign for adhering to safety procedures. 

They have been fans of the president since he announced his candidacy, saying they like his pro-life stance and appreciate the humming economy, which they attribute to policies like the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which the president championed.

Once Trump took the stage Thursday night, those waiting outside heard the president poking fun at his Democratic rivals — who have been crisscrossing the state for more than a year and are flooding the state this weekend leading up to the first-in-the-nation caucuses Feb. 3. 

The president called former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg “Boot Edge Edge,” former Vice President Joe Biden “Sleepy Joe,” U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” and independent U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie.”

Trump jeered at the media that was inside the event, calling out The New York Times and CNN specifically.

“I just saw polls from the failing New York Times — it will be out of business,” Trump said. “They did a poll in Iowa. They have me pitted against every one of the socialists. We are winning by a lot, everyone, we are beating them all.”’

The Jan. 25 New York Times/Siena poll showed Trump within percentage points of most of the Democrats. 

Trump also touted recent trade deals brokered with Iowa’s biggest trading partners.

“You just got two of the greatest trade deals,” Trump told the crowd. “Add Japan to it. Let’s make it three. USMCA all done, China all done. For the farmers.”

Trump signed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Trade-Agreement Wednesday, and announced a tentative deal between the U.S. and China in mid-January. USMCA, which replaced the 1990s NAFTA, is expected to create 176,000 new jobs and boost the GDP by $68.2 billion, according to an April report from the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Canada and Mexico are by far Iowa’s largest trading partners, accounting for $6.5 billion in exports — nearly 46 percent of total exports in the state — in 2018.

The trade deals garnered support from Iowa’s Republican leaders, with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, calling the USMCA Wednesday a “strong, balanced and reciprocal trade agreement.”

Reynolds briefly joined Trump on stage, chanting “four more years” and encouraging Iowans to show up for Trump on Feb. 3.

Some Iowa Democrats, however, point to Trump granting 85 renewable fuel waivers to oil refineries, leading to closures of a handful of ethanol plants in Iowa. 

“Does he love the farmer, or does he just want your vote?” asked former Iowa Corn Grower’s Association President Pam Johnson on an Iowa Democratic Party press call Thursday morning.

Protesters sometimes drowned out the president’s speech broadcast outside the Knapp Center. When he took the stage, around a hundred protesters shouted “Lock him up,” a reference to cheers at past Trump rallies where 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton detractors would shout “Lock her up.”

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