Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump refused to take responsibility on Sunday for clashes at his campaign events and lashed out at protesters who have dogged his rallies, forcing him to cancel one in Chicago last week.
When a protester interrupted his speech in Bloomington, Illinois, on Sunday minutes after it began, Trump derided him as a “disrupter” and told the cheering crowd, “Don’t worry about it – I don’t hear their voice.”
“Our rallies are so big and we have so many people, I never hear their voices. I only hear our people’s voices saying, ‘There they are, there they are,'” Trump said as the audience roared.
Later, the billionaire businessman spotted a man whose voice he did want to hear, a supporter wearing a T-shirt reading “Legal immigrants for Trump.” The candidate brought the man on stage to address the crowd briefly.
Trump is trying to cement his lead over his remaining rivals – U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Governor John Kasich – in five states that hold presidential nominating contests on Tuesday. Voters in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri will vote in Republican, as well as Democratic, primaries.
The four Republicans and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are vying to run in the November election, whose winner will succeed President Barack Obama.
Trump used a round of Sunday morning television appearances to beat back strong criticism from Republican rivals and Democrats alike that he was encouraging discord with divisive language disparaging Muslims and illegal immigrants.
“I don’t accept responsibility. I do not condone violence in any shape,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The New Yorker defended his supporters and said he was considering helping pay the legal fees of a 78-year-old white man who punched a young black man at a Trump rally last week in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The man, Trump said, “got carried away.”
“I’ve actually instructed my people to look into it,” he said.
The man, John McGraw, was charged with assault and later with communicating a threat after he said he enjoyed hitting “that loudmouth” and threatened next time “to kill him.”
Trump had earlier promised to help cover the legal fees of supporters involved in clashes at his rallies.
On Friday night, simmering political tensions turned into a palpable threat when thousands of protesters showed up at the Chicago rally, forcing Trump to cancel that event and casting a shadow over his weekend rallies.
The Chicago clashes followed several weeks of violence at Trump events, in which protesters and journalists have been punched, tackled or hustled out of venues, raising concerns about security.
Trump drew a round of condemnation after Friday’s clashes.
“Donald Trump on a regular basis incites his crowd,” Senator Rubio, 44, said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, called Trump an “incredibly divisive” figure whose “rhetoric is inciting violence.”
“So I really hope he tones it down. This is not good for the country,” Sanders, 74, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Trump said tension at his rallies came from people being “sick and tired” of American leadership that has cost them jobs through trade deals, failed to defeat Islamic State terrorism and treated military veterans poorly.
“The people are angry at that – they’re not angry about something I’m saying. I’m just the messenger,” he said.
BLAME THE PROTESTERS
Trump has harnessed the discontent of white, working-class voters who blame trade deals for costing them jobs. He has proposed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, disparaged some Mexican immigrants as criminals and advocated a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
About 2,000 protesters gathered outside an airport hangar in Bloomington before Trump’s Illinois rally.
The crowd, which swelled as people who had registered for the event were turned away at the door, was calm, with many chanting slogans such as “Hey ho, Donald Trump must go.”
Samina Yousuf, 49, a Bloomington doctor, said she came to the rally to ask Trump a simple question:
“I am an United States citizen. I am a Muslim,” she said. “What do I tell my 10-year-old son who asked me, ‘Why does a potential president want us out of our home'”?
Trump, 69, who was also campaigning on Sunday in Ohio and Florida, hopes to beat both Kasich, 63, and Rubio in their home states.
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll showed Trump leading Rubio 43 percent to 22 percent among likely primary voters in Florida. Trump lags Ohio’s popular governor in that state, 33 percent to Kasich’s 39 percent, the poll showed. The survey had a margin of error 2.2 percentage points.
Both Ohio and Florida award all their delegates to the winner.
(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikana and Patrick Rucker; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Stephen Powell, Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis)