BURLINGTON >> Presidential candidate Donald Trump splashed into the heart of Bernie Sanders country Thursday, Jan. 7, whipping up a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters who packed the Flynn Theater while a throbbing crowd of hundreds protested outside.
In an extemporaneous speech that lasted an hour and a half and veered from topic to topic — sometimes without Trump completing his point — the Republican front-runner took shots at President Obama "one of the worst negotiators in the history of the world," his Republican opponents, particularly Jeb Bush — "He won't even use his last name, just Jeb exclamation point" — and the media, which he said won't show his enormous crowds unless there's a protester, then they'll turn their camera "into a pretzel" to get the shot.
A handful of protesters were removed from the Flynn throughout the speech, which Trump seemed to enjoy, yelling at security to remove the offending parties and then mocking the protesters for being so tame. He goaded security to work faster, saying "they're not my guys."
Attendees were asked at the entrance to the Flynn by Trump volunteers if they supported the candidate. Some reported being turned away if they said they did not or were undecided. One woman said she was sent away despite waiting in line for more than four hours.
A line that started in the early afternoon eventually bent around the corner on Main Street and all the way down St. Paul Street for several blocks. More than 20,000 people downloaded tickets for the event even though the Flynn has a capacity of only 1,411.
Trump took the stage about 20 minutes late, entering and exiting to the song "Eye of the Tiger," wearing his signature red tie and black suit and frequently gesticulating, spreading his arms wide to make a point. Afterward, he signed autographs, his hair at one point was all that was visible as he stood in a sea of supporters.
In interviews, Trump fans praised his blunt talk, his disdain for political correctness, his success as a businessman and role as a political outsider. Chittenden County Republican chair Deb Billado, who mistakenly introduced the candidate prematurely, praised his "passion, vision, brilliance and unwillingness to take no for an answer."
Security was tight with Secret Service on hand and attendees had to go through a metal detector and have their bags screened before entering. After the crowd started filling in, a volunteer handed out Trump signs, irritating Flynn Executive Director John Killacky, who said the campaign promised it would be a no-sign event. Supporters jostled to get signs that doubled as souvenirs.
"They lied to us," he said, shaking his head, telling an assistant to not bother to try to take them back.
Trump spend a chunk of his speech denouncing the deal the Obama administration made with Iran to halt production of nuclear weapons. He schooled the audience on how he would have negotiated with the Iranians, at one point saying if they hadn't agreed to his terms that he would have "doubled the sanctions and waited for them to call."
"This is the dumbest deal I've ever seen," said Trump.
Much of his speech was sprinkled with superlatives. Trump said he would strengthen the military to the point where "we're going to have so many victories you'll be bored with winning." He also said he should have run four years ago because he would have won. Among his rivals, he said he had the most expansive vocabulary and the highest IQ.
Trump also declared he would have been a better pick than German Chancellor Angela Merkel for Time magazine's "Person of the Year," which he said should be called "Man of the Year," and said if elected "when it's Christmas, we're going to say Merry Christmas." He also joked that he would "never ride in a Rolls-Royce again" but instead a presidential limousine with windows so thick they can withstand "28 AK-47 bullets."
He is self-funding his campaign, Trump reminded the crowd, and he maintained running had cost him millions of dollars in business deals, including another lucrative year telling contestants "You're fired" at the end of "The Apprentice."
The line that got the biggest applause was a back and forth exchange Trump had with the audience over building a wall to separate the U.S. from Mexico.
"Who's going to pay for the wall?" Trump asked. The crowd shouted back "Mexico!" It became a call and response, which Trump suggested was spontaneous. Seeming pleased with himself he said, "I've never done that before. I'm going to have to do that again."
He also scored big points with the crowd defending gun rights and when he belittled other Republicans as "losers," including Bush, Sen. Rand Paul and former New York governor George Pataki, "who was polling less than zero."
He spent little time going after Sanders, criticizing more his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton. After noting the weakness of Martin O'Malley, one of Sanders' Democratic primary opponents, Trump leveled some praise at the senator, "At least Bernie gets some action."
Trump told the crowd he'd love to take on Sanders, but he's got his heart set on Hillary.
Later he lurched back to Sanders, again treading lightly. "I'll tell you one thing, we all like Bernie, right?" Trump asked, eliciting boos from the crowd. Hardly missing a beat, Trump recalibrated and went into attack mode.
"I mean he wants to tax you at 90 percent. OK, you don't like him. I was trying to feel that out," Trump said. He then launched into a critique of how the senator handled a disruption in his speech last August by two women with the advocacy group Black Lives Matter.
"That won't happen to me, I promise," Trump said, telling the crowd that Sanders was "petrified."
"I lost so much respect for Bernie. We can't let anybody take over our mic," Trump said to raucous applause.
Regarding Burlington, Trump said: "I knew I was going to have some (protesters) up here. If we didn't have that, it wouldn't be Vermont right? Why do think the other Republicans aren't coming up here folks, OK."
Trump sneered the half dozen times he was interrupted, demanding police to "take them out" louder each time and complaining they weren't being removed quickly enough or forcefully enough. He also made fun of them, at one point saying: "That was a very mild protester."
Two black women stood up at one point and began shouting at Trump. They were pulled from the center of the aisle and escorted out of the Flynn. As one woman left she shouted, "Trump's a racist."
Another woman who was removed contended she was a Trump supporter being wronged. "I didn't do anything. This is not Vermont." And a few moments later, she said: "Trump ruined Vermont."
One man who was removed from the balcony had a message for Trump supporters as he left: "I have seven employees, and I pay $16 an hour. How much do you make?" Another woman shouted "What about Planned Parenthood?" Trump couldn't hear what she was saying but delighted in calling for her removal.
Trump would jeer when people were removed, yelling "Throw them out into the cold ... don't give him his coat."
It was all part of the spectacle, which he seemed to welcome and feed on, as though it were part of the schtick. "Honestly they're very rude, but at least it's entertaining," Trump said.
He pointed to the bank of television cameras in the back, including national networks, and said they never showed how big his crowds were unless they were filming a protester. He mocked them, saying "over the networks tonight, I thought it would be a nice soft evening, five or six hundred sitting around, a little fireside chat, then CNN reports, this line is massive."
Katina Cummings, of Waterbury, was among those who didn't even make it through the doors. She said she had waited nearly five hours in line to see Trump, but that she was turned away because she had a sign supportive of refugees.
"They guided me out and said I had to leave, it was a private event," Cummings said. "I said, 'It's not a private event, I have a ticket, I have the right to be here and you are giving me a political test.'"
She claimed Trump staffers turned away anyone who said they weren't a Trump supporter, including anyone who answered that they were "undecided."
"Shame on Trump for this, shame on him," Cummings said. "And shame on the Flynn for allowing this to happen."
Flynn executive director John Killacky was on hand all night. He continued to defend the decision to rent the space to the candidate and said the flow of free speech from the stage to the park was democracy.
The first man in line, Mark Conrad, of Burlington, said he showed up at 4:30 a.m. Thursday. He smiled slyly when he told reporters that he supported Sanders.
"I believe in what (Sanders) says about the middle class," Conrad explained, adding Trump "hasn't been too specific about stuff."
Second in line was Martin Deslauriers of Plattsburgh, New York, who was clearly a Trump fan. He wore a Donald Trump hoody and a "Make America Great Again" hat.
"I just think that Mr. Trump is not anybody's puppet," Deslauriers said. "He is self-financing and so I believe that he doesn't have to answer to any big monetary companies."
"That's why he's so direct," he added.
The line for the speech seemed comprised mostly of Trump fans, though a few Bernie buttons and hats were spotted.
As night set in, more than 500 protesters lined the north side of Main Street across from the Flynn, chanting, dancing and holding signs. Musical groups Africa Jamono and the Brass Balaga played and paraded around City Hall Park, chanting, "We are unstoppable, a better world is possible."
A group of protesters sat on the back steps to City Hall holding candles and singing. A small boy up in a tree held a sign that read "Hate Does Not Make America Great!" and a handful of people in Star Wars helmets held a cloth sign proclaiming "The Dark Side for Trump."
The Kountry Kart Deli on Main Street offered a special Donald Trump sandwich, bologna on white bread. The sub was "filled with B.S. (bacon slices) and topped with American cheese."
A deli employee said around 8 p.m. that nobody had bought the special.
At times, Trump supporters verbally tussled with protesters. Yelling from both sides was at times loud, and a few middle fingers were flipped, but the general atmosphere was cordial. Burlington Chief of Police Brandon del Pozo said there were no arrests related to the event, but that energy ran high. "It's what you expect," del Pozo said. "I got variations of every hand gesture you've ever seen." Police blocked off Main Street from St. Paul to Church streets, and from 11 a.m. police were managing crowds. Del Pozo said the Vermont State Police and other agencies were available to support their efforts, and there were no incidents during the day. Mayor Miro Weinberger praised how the Burlington Police Department was handling the situation, but said Wednesday he planned to keep his distance from the event. Weinberger was loath to criticize Trump's handling of the rally, but he did say, referring the issuing of tickets: "It's not the way I personally would have managed the event." Later he he took a shot at Trump on Twitter.
A spokeswoman for the mayor said they didn't yet have an estimate for the costs the city might incur hosting The Donald. "We expect it to be in the thousands, and we will bill the Trump campaign," said Jennifer Kaulius, the mayor's communications director, in an email.
In 2012 the city sent Barack Obama's presidential campaign a bill costs the city incurred during his visit to Burlington. "I don't believe that bill was paid," Kaulius said.
A number of familiar faces were spotted at the protest, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter and Democratic/Progressive lieutenant gubernatorial candidate David Zuckerman. Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's was also there.
The national media was in Burlington, too, with reporters from ABC, NBC and the New York Times, among others, swooping into the Queen City to witness Trump in the Green Mountain state.
"Vermonters support an inclusionary community," Zuckerman said. "We want to show that to Trump and his supporters, but also to the national media that's here so that folks get a reflection of where Bernie is from and what Vermont is about."
Sanders was in Iowa during the Burlington speech, but he sent out a fundraising appeal regarding Trump's appearance on his turf. The Church Street Sanders office was more busy than normal Thursday with volunteers phone-banking, and Sanders blasted out a statement against the Republican frontrunner at the end of the night.
"The American people will not support a candidate trying to divide us up by where we came from," Sanders said. "They will not support a candidate who does not favor raising the minimum wage and who thinks wages in the country are too high. They will not support a candidate who thinks climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese."