ATLANTA – Republican presidential primary leader Donald Trump says he will consider paying the legal fees of a North Carolina man captured on video sucker-punching a protester at one of the billionaire’s signature mass rallies.
“I don’t accept responsibility. I do not condone violence in any shape,” Trump told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
But when asked whether he’d financially back the supporter, who was arrested and charged with assault, Trump says he’s “instructed my people to look into it, yes.”
Trump, meanwhile, rejected calls to modify his campaign rhetoric amid increasing instances of violence at his events. Instead he blamed Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for sending supporters to disrupt Trump events and noted that many of the protesters who clashed with Trump supporters in Chicago on Friday night carried Sanders signs.
Sanders on Sunday vehemently denied Trump’s accusations.
“To suggest that our campaign is telling people to disrupt his campaign is a lie,” Sanders said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Trump said his rallies are “peaceful,” and accused news reports of exaggerating the violence. He demurred on multiple Sunday talk shows when reminded of his litany of incendiary statements: he’d “punch” a protester “in the face,” “we need a little bit more of” hitting back and encouraging the crowd to “knock the crap out of” protesters.
On several Sunday talk shows Trump said in one instance, he was simply defending himself against the possibility of being hit by a tomato, which he insisted could do “real damage” if hurled by someone “with a strong arm.” There have been no reports of a tomato being hurled at any Trump event or of one hitting the candidate.
Trump has rallies scheduled Sunday in Illinois, Florida and Ohio ahead of Tuesday primaries that likely offer GOP rivals their last shot to derail Trump from reaching the 1,237 delegates required for the Republican nomination.
The GOP leader’s rivals – in both major parties – are more vocal in their criticism of Trump’s rhetoric, calling it dangerous and divisive, from calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals” to his repeated cracks about “punching” protesters and taking them “out on a stretcher.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a distant third in the GOP delegate count, compared Trump to third-world “strong men,” and said the tone of the campaign “is really going to do damage to America.”
Rubio said on CNN that Trump is arguing to voters: “Don’t put your faith in yourselves. Don’t put your faith in society. Put your faith in me.”
On the Democratic side, Sanders said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he has “millions of supporters,” some of whom “will do what they do.” Sanders said on CNN that Trump “is a man who keeps implying violence, and then you end up getting what you see.”
On the possibility of paying legal fees for his North Carolina supporter, Trump says he wants “to see the full tape” before deciding whether to back John Franklin McGraw. Trump suggested McGraw, who is white, punched Rakeem Jones, who is black, after Jones held up his middle finger to the crowd.
McGraw “got carried away,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” but “frankly wants to see America made great again.”
Video of the immediate moments before McGraw threw the punch does not show the “taunting” from Jones that Trump describes.
Jones has told The Associated Press that he and others went to the event as observers, not protesters. He says someone swore at one in their group, and by the time they tried to object, the police were escorting him out.
Trump appeared intent Saturday not to draw criticism for instigating any problems.
At a morning rally in Ohio, he was suddenly pulled midspeech into a protective ring of U.S. Secret Service agents after a man rushed the stage.
“Thank you for the warning,” Trump told the crowd after he resumed his speech. “I was ready for ’em, but it’s much better if the cops do it, don’t we agree?”