Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., last week. (Photo: Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Donald Trump says he is looking into paying the legal fees of a man who was arrested after throwing a sucker punch at a protester during the Republican frontrunner’s rally in North Carolina last week.
“The man got carried away,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” Sunday. “He obviously loves his country, and maybe he doesn’t like seeing what’s happening to the country.”
At Wednesday’s rally in Fayetteville, N.C., John McGraw, 78, was caught on video punching the protester, 26-year-old Rakeem Jones, as Jones was being led out of the event by security.
After the rally, “Inside Edition” interviewed McGraw, who freely admitted assaulting Jones.
“He deserved it,” McGraw said. “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
Police arrested McGraw the next day and charged him with assault and disorderly conduct.
“No one should be subjected to such a cowardly, unprovoked act as that committed by McGraw,” Cumberland County Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “Regardless of political affiliation, speech, race, national origin, color, gender, bad reputation, prior acts or political demonstration, no other citizen has the right to assault another person or to act in such a way as this defendant did.”
On Sunday, Trump called the protesters at his rallies professional “disrupters.”
“They’re not protesters; I’m telling you, they’re disrupters,” he said. “They’re professionals.”
And while the GOP presidential hopeful says he doesn’t condone violence, he suggested McGraw’s sucker punch may have been provoked.
“From what I saw, the young man stuck his finger up in the air, and the other man sort of just had it,” Trump said. “I do want to see what that young man was doing. Because he was very taunting. He was very loud, very disruptive. And from what I understand, he was sticking a certain finger up in the air. And that is a terrible thing to do in front of somebody that frankly wants to see America made great again.”
When asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd if he would pay McGraw’s legal fees if he could, the brash billionaire said: “I’ve actually instructed my people to look into it, yes.”
“I don’t condone violence,” he said, “but this kid shouldn’t have had the finger up in the air, either.”
It’s not the first time Trump has indicated he would cover the legal fees of his supporters. At a caucus-day rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he told the crowd, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”
But the former “Celebrity Apprentice” star doesn’t see such rhetoric as creating a toxic environment.
“Let me explain what happened,” Trump said on “Meet The Press”:
Just as I was going up on the stage, I was told by the Secret Service, “Sir, there’s a person or two people in the audience that have tomatoes. They are going to throw them at you, we think. If they do throw them, you have to be prepared.” Now, if you get hit in the face with a tomato, let me tell you, with somebody with a strong arm, at least, let me tell you, it can be very damaging. Not good. So I was told people were in the audience, two people, with tomatoes, and they’re going to throw them at me. What I did is I said, “By the way, if you see anybody with tomatoes, right at the beginning, you’ve got to stop them. Do whatever you want to do.” I have no objection to what I said. I would say it again. People are there doing harm; you have to go and you have to use equal force.
And Trump, who last month said he wished he could punch a protester at his rally in the face, refuses to take responsibility for the escalating tension at his rallies.
“I don’t accept responsibility,” Trump said. “The fact is that we have very peaceful rallies. I’ve had many, many rallies. I have 25,000, 30,000 people coming to rallies. And out of that, we have very, very little problem. We haven’t had a real injury or anything.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz placed the blame on his Republican rival.
“At the end of the day in any campaign, responsibility starts at the top,” Cruz said on “Meet The Press.” “And it is not beneficial when you have a presidential candidate like Donald Trump telling his supporters, ‘Punch that guy in the face.’ We ought to have a president who brings us together, who doesn’t seek to divide us.”
So did Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“There’s no question Donald Trump has created a toxic atmosphere,” Kasich said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The environment is there, and he needs to back off this.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he’s concerned the violence at Trump’s rallies might result in death.
“I’m very concerned about that,” Rubio said on CNN. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
On Friday, protests forced Trump to postpone his rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
On Saturday night, police used pepper spray on protesters outside a Trump rally in Kansas City, Missouri.
Earlier Saturday, a man who apparently tried to rush the stage at his rally in Ohio prompted Secret Service agents to surround the GOP frontrunner.
“I was ready for him,” Trump told the crowd as they chanted his name.
Some of the protesters at Trump’s events over the weekend were supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — and the Republican frontrunner immediately took notice, suggesting the Sanders campaign had instructed them to go.
“They had Bernie Sanders signs all over the place, and they were made by Bernie Sanders’ people,” Trump said on NBC. “I mean, these were professionally-made signs.”
Sanders responded on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”
“I think anybody who understands Mr. Trump’s campaign knows that he tells the truth very, very rarely and I’m afraid that on this occasion, he’s lying again,” Sanders said. “He says that our campaign is organizing disruptions of his rallies. That’s a lie. George, we have millions of supporters out there, and clearly, some of them were at that rally, along with many, many other protesters. But to say that we organized that, totally untrue.”
Sanders added: “Mr. Trump, I think, is getting very nervous. He is catching onto the fact that the American people do not support a candidate like Trump, whose verbiage, whose language, whose rhetoric incites violence.”
On Sunday afternoon, security was visibly stepped up at Trump’s town hall in West Chester, Ohio, where at least eight security guards and Secret Service agents surrounded the stage as he spoke.
Trump speaks in West Chester, Ohio, Sunday. (CNN)