MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Hewing mostly to the words on a teleprompter, President Trump returned Wednesday to selling his tax-overhaul proposal in an appearance near Harrisburg, saying the plan was designed to lift the middle class rather than the wealthiest.
"It's a middle-class bill. That's what we're thinking of. That's what I want," Trump said, speaking in a hangar on an Air National Guard base here. "I've had rich friends of mine come up to me and say they don't want it — give it to the middle class, give it to people who want to spend it. You would be surprised."
He stayed away from the distractions that have muddled his message in recent days: the fight over NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem; the dispute with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who called the president a "moron" over the two men's respective IQs; and his Twitter-sniping with ESPN.
As a light rain fell about an hour before Air Force One was set to land, locals who had managed to snag a ticket were filing into the Air National Guard base, where the president gave his second speech in the area in six months.
On his 100th day in office in April, he addressed a crowd at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Arena in a much more freewheeling speech promising, among other things, that the Republican-controlled Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and build a Mexican border wall. Eight months into office, Trump hasn't come up with funding for the wall, and Congress failed to pass an ACA repeal for the fourth time last month.
But on Wednesday, Trump stuck to taxes, briefly calling out Democrats for "obstructionism": "They don't want to do anything productive," he said. And, in a speech that White House officials billed as especially geared toward the trucking industry, he pumped his infrastructure plan, introduced this spring: He promised "smooth, beautiful" highways for trucks to drive on.
At the local Republican committee headquarters, staffers had given away about 70 tickets and said interest in the details of the president's tax plan was high — farmers here, they said, would benefit from a proposed repeal of the estate tax, and local manufacturers were hoping corporate tax cuts would boost business.
"Trump had good numbers in Central Pa., and they realize the importance Pennsylvania plays in the presidential cycle," said David Feidt, the Dauphin County Republican chairman. With local elections approaching next month, he said Trump's visit would help "motivate the base."
Trump highlighted what he said are impending benefits for the middle class in the tax plan. The president focused in particular on small, family-owned businesses in the trucking industry.
The plan's proposed elimination of the estate tax, which conservatives call the "death tax," would help the H.R. Ewell Inc. trucking company in East Earl, a bulk food hauler.
"We are ending the crushing, horrible and unfair estate tax, sometimes called the death tax, [which] has destroyed many businesses," Trump said. He said eliminating the tax would enable company president Calvin Ewell to keep the firm in his family. "Good-looking family," he added.
After the speech, Ewell said he'd inherited his business from his father and had grown the trucking company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Tax reform, he said, was long overdue.
"I want to push this business onto my children," he said, adding that he was "surprised and shocked" Trump had mentioned him from the stage. "You don't expect the president to call you out like that."
Trump highlighted several other local attendees during his speech, largely sticking to the script, though he did indulge in the occasional digression. And when he spotted Camp Hill native Jeffrey Lord — a frequent Trump defender on CNN who was fired for tweeting a Nazi salute at a critic in a Twitter argument this year — Trump thanked him for showing up. "One of my few sources of truth," he said, and called the network "fake news."
Earlier, on the state Capitol steps, protesters had waved signs against the tax plan: "Not One Penny in Tax Cuts for the Rich." "Trump-GOP Tax Scam Is Billionaire Welfare."
The protest, organized by Tax March — a national organization that planned protests over Trump's tax returns in April — was part of ongoing demonstrations against the plan, organizers said.
Critics, including Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who held a news conference denouncing the tax plan in Philadelphia just ahead of Trump's speech, say the plan — which condenses the seven income tax brackets to three, slashes the corporate tax rate, and eliminates the estate tax — would largely benefit the wealthy and even increase taxes for some middle-income Pennsylvanians.
"We're staking out our side in the tax fight," said Tax March executive director Nicole Gill. She said that after a long fight over attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, activists are pivoting to address a tax plan they fear will spell cuts for the same services threatened by the failed health-care bills: "We'll have to pay for this plan through cuts to services."
The protest, which drew several dozen in the rain in the middle of a workday, she said, "shows how dedicated people are going to be."
Attendees at the Trump rally said they had been inspired by the speech and impressed by the tax plan.
"I'll definitely be able to hire more people and buy more equipment for my shop," said Mark Ondishin, who owns a tire company in Hazleton and said the tax plan would allow him to write off equipment purchases faster. "I'm worried Congress won't pass it, but I'm hoping it will. We really do need it."