The city of Huntington, West Virginia had less than a week’s notice that the president would be hosting a re-election campaign rally in its largest downtown arena.
President Trump publicly made the announcement on July 28 — amid a busy time for the President and his still-evolving administration. The announcement of the rally came just one day after the Senate decided to reject legislation to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act, two days after he announced on Twitter he would ban transgender people from serving in the military and a few days before Anthony Scaramucci resigned from his short-lived position as White House communications director.
Over the last week, the scheduled rally has brought a flurry of activity around Huntington. Local activist groups have been scrambling to organize protests, Trump supporters throughout Appalachia are booking their travel plans and the city is coordinating with the local police department and Secret Service.
“Our duty is to welcome the President of the U.S. anytime they come to town,” said Bryan Chambers, communications director for the city of Huntington. “That’s our focus.”
The location makes sense: the president still has a 60 percent approval rating in West Virginia, according to a recent Gallup poll, and won 59 percent of the vote in Cabell County in the 2016 election. Trump’s rally comes on the heels of another recent trip to West Virginia — where he gave controversial speech at the 2017 Boy Scout Jamboree. The August 3 rally will be held at Big Sandy Superstore Arena, which can hold up to 9,000 people. Areas around the arena will be blocked off for protests and roads will be closed for the event.
The rally, which comes during a week of upheaval and drama in the White House, has caused quite a bit of controversy in West Virginia already. Over the weekend, someone using the name “Dana Capron” on Facebook posted a comment threatening to shoot protesters who blocked any of the streets around the event, calling on “armed conservatives” to help “clear the protesters once and for all.” A social media account called Downtown Huntington posted the threat on Twitter and attention to a potential threat begun to swirl.
— Downtown Huntington (@DowntownHWV) July 30, 2017
The police department referred inquiries about the threats to Chambers, who declined to comment on the matter. It’s still unclear if the Secret Service is investigating the threats.
The potential for violence has concerned many Huntington residents, including Kristy Joy Browning, a 39-year-old business manager at Cabell County Public Library who is involved with Tri-State Indivisible, a liberal political organization. She said she still hasn’t decided on whether she’ll go protest, but she did reserve two tickets at the free rally. She doesn’t plan to show up. Many activists in Huntington have done the same thing in protest of the rally, in hopes that the arena will look empty.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean no one will show up — I do think a lot of people will show up,” said Browning, but she hopes the event “doesn’t look as full as he would like it to.”
There’s no information on what Trump’s speech will be about.
“It’s a campaign event and rally of sorts, and that’s all we know,” Chambers said. No further details about the expected turnout or security measures were available from Huntington city officials. Requests for comment from the Trump campaign went unreturned.
Browning would like to hear about healthcare, an issue that has quickly faded from the news after last week’s Senate vote. West Virginia is central to the debate over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. The state has nearly 180,000 people who receive health insurance through Medicaid. Browning is on health insurance under the state government, and said she and her husband, who is diabetic, stand to lose a lot from a repeal. “There’s a lot going on in our country with healthcare reform, and tax reform … he needs to be working more and campaigning less,” Browning said. “If he wants to come talk about healthcare, I know lots of people who want to give him information about that.”
Though it’s unclear if he will cover healthcare or any of the other recent White House news, Trump’s speech is almost sure to include references to the coal industry. In the first quarter of 2017, West Virginia had the second-highest GDP growth in the U.S., and a boost in mining contributed to some of that growth. The Trump administration has continually emphasized its priorities on fossil fuels, especially in Appalachian states like West Virginia: Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the Longview Power Plant in July to discuss the economic potential of coal-fired power plants. And just this week, the Department of Interior released a statement touting the Berwind Mine, a coal plant being constructed on the border of Virginia and West Virginia.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said several members plan to travel to the rally in support of the president.
“I certainly hope he will talk about the coal industry and how important that is,” Raney said. “We’ve got to get some assurance these power plants are going to continue to be open and be able to burn coal with a certain future in front of them. He’s given some but we’re hopeful he will continue to do that.