Donald Trump challenged an audience of students on Wednesday to disagree with his decision not to fire his campaign manager over allegations that he assaulted a woman. No one did.
The Republican frontrunner’s senior aide, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with simple battery by Florida police following an incident earlier this month in which he pulled a reporter, Michelle Fields, away from Trump as she tried to ask the candidate a question.
Republican rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich have called for Lewandowski to be sacked while Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton condemned a culture of misogyny and violence that the brash tycoon has encouraged during his campaign.
But speaking at St Norbert College in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, Trump repeated a formula he has used during past controversies: tackling it head-on and seeking to portray himself as a victim of the political and media establishment.
He asked the audience: “What kind of country are we in to destroy someone and what kind of country are we in when they go to Kasich: what would you do? ‘I would fire him.’ They go to Ted Cruz: ‘I would fire him.’ Folks, as your president, you need somebody that’s going to be loyal to the country and to yourselves.”
Trump stood on stage reading past quotations from Fields in which she said she had almost been pulled down but managed to retain her balance. He said: “Now if she really did go down, if he really did something like that, he would be fired before she ever got up, OK? That I can tell you. If this stuff were so, but I’ve looked at the tape, and I’m trying to figure it out.”
Looking out at the 724-seat theatre, full of students, journalists and others, with some people standing in the aisles, he asked: “So what do the people who saw the tape – do we agree with this? Does anybody disagree? Could you stand up if you disagree with me?”
Everyone remained seated. Feeling vindicated, Trump added: “Not one person in the room. And that’s risky for me to do, you know. When I do that and the whole room stands up, believe me that’s going to be the No 1 story on television. Here’s the bad news: because I have a room loaded with people and nobody stood up, it won’t even be on television, right folks?”
Many people in the audience also indicated that they had not seen the security camera footage of the incident, suggesting that it could be similar to past uproars – such as Trump’s failure in an interview to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan – which dominate the media but do not necessarily penetrate his support base.
Stephanie Bulandr, 19, a music student, said afterwards: “It sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. If that incident really happened, he would have acted on it. I trust him. I don’t think it’s as big a deal as people are making of it.”
She added: “I’m not really into politics but listening to him today definitely changed my perception of him. The media paints him as a lot more crude than he is.”
June Peters, 66, said she agreed with Trump’s decision not to sack his manager. “I haven’t seen the footage, but my husband has and talked to me about it. He’s a big supporter of women, but I think there are a lot of people who want to stop him because he doesn’t owe anything to anybody.”
Trump is campaigning in Wisconsin ahead of next Tuesday’s primary election, which could be critical in deciding whether he amasses enough delegates to win the Republican nomination outright or is forced to take part in a contested convention, where the party establishment appears determined to stop him. Opinion polls suggest a tight contest in the state.
Describing his support as a “movement” comprising millions of people, including many who have never voted before, Trump complained: “The Republican party hasn’t treated me properly in my opinion. They haven’t treated me fairly.”
Trump got a laugh when he recalled how at one stage there had been 17 candidates for the Republican nomination. “Jeb Bush: expected to win, gone. Scott Walker: expected to win, gone. Rand Paul: expected to win, gone. They’re all gone. I miss them. I’m, like, lonely.”
But along with familiar swipes at Cruz (“Lyin’ Ted”), Clinton (“a disaster”), politicians (“bad dudes”), Nato and the UN, Trump toned down his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric for the young audience, breaking from his usual stump speech to offer the students a rumination on the nature of success. Some compared it to a graduation day speech. Trump said family was more important than money but advised: “Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.”
Student protesters gathered outside the venue and words such as “peace”, “love” and “understanding” were chalked on to paving stones. Lisa Vanden Avond, 55, director of planned giving at the college, said she chose not to shake Trump’s hand. “I don’t think he said anything of substance. There wasn’t anything clear about what he would do to make this country great. He said everything was a ‘disaster’ and a ‘mess’. He was very egotistical in his ramblings about success and momentum. He didn’t speak to the people; he spoke at them.”
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