PORTLAND, Maine — After days of missed opportunities to target his rival, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump went back on the offensive Thursday, delivering an anti-immigrant message aimed squarely at New England.
Citing the Boston Marathon bombers and the settlement of Somalis in Maine, he raised the prospect of terrorists infiltrating the country as refugees.
“We’re letting people come in from terrorist nations that shouldn’t be allowed,” Trump said. “This could be the great Trojan horse of all time.”
His rhetoric fired up a feisty crowd of nearly 1,800 in Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, where four sets of protesters were jeered and ejected after interrupting Trump’s remarks.
At least one group hauled out of the hall by police held up pocket-size copies of the Constitution, in apparent homage to Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq.
At the Democratic National Convention last week, Khan held up a copy of the Constitution, questioning whether Trump had read it, and denounced his treatment of Muslims.
Trump pushed back at Khan and his wife, prompting days of rebukes from leading Republicans who were stunned to see a politician attack the parents of an American soldier killed in action.
But one Trump fan in Portland was willing to overlook that behavior.
“As he has more experience, he will be groomed better,” said April Panosian, 62, who shouted “Benghazi” when Trump mentioned his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
A former Democrat, Panosian said misleading and insensitive handling of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, by Clinton “overshadows” Trump’s treatment of the Khan family.
The boisterous crowd erupted in hearty boos whenever Trump mentioned Clinton, whom Trump and Maine Governor Paul LePage dubbed the “Queen of Corruption.”
Portland is a liberal city in what is usually a blue state, but the state splits its Electoral College votes by congressional district. Trump is trying to win at least one electoral vote here — and said Thursday that he might get all four, “but we’ll see.”
Trump, who was distracted for much of the week by his back-and-forth with the Khans, shifted his focus Thursday onto news that the Obama administration had paid Iran $400 million in cash when it forged its nuclear deal early this year. While President Obama maintains that it was a reconciliation of an old financial dispute, the timing coincided with Iran’s release of American hostages.
“I wonder where that money really goes, by the way. In their pockets or toward terrorism? Probably a combination of both,” Trump said. “How stupid are we? How stupid are we?”
Trump supporters responded with glee, greeting references to Clinton with the refrain used during the Republican National Convention – “Lock her up!” — and going further, indicting Obama too.
“Lock him up!” several men in the audience yelled.
In his remarks on terrorism, Trump paid particular attention to Maine’s Somali refugees.
“We’ve just seen many, many crimes getting worse all the time, and as Maine knows — a major destination for Somali refugees — right, am I right? Well, they’re all talking about it. Maine. Somali refugees. We admit hundreds of thousands — you admit, into Maine, and to other places in the United States — hundreds of thousands of refugees,” Trump said.
Somali immigration has been a political flash point in largely white Maine, particularly in Lewiston, where officials estimated last year that between 4,000 and 5,000 Somalis live in a community of about 36,000.
Trump also pointed to a story by The Washington Times that faulted the State Department for the unintended consequences of resettling large numbers of Somali refugees in Minnesota: high unemployment, strained social resources, and a pool of potential recruits for Islamist terror groups.
“You see it happening. You read about it,” Trump said. “You see it, and you can be smart, and you can be cunning and tough, or you can be very, very dumb and not want to see what’s going on, folks.”
And he recalled the April 15, 2013, bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three and wounded more than 260 others.
“Remember the Boston bombers? What a horrible thing that was,” Trump said, noting that convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emigrated from Russia.
His older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a confrontation with police, had a pending application for citizenship.
“We take ’em, right? We take ’em,” Trump said. “And you see what happened. How violent and how vicious and how horrible was that?”
“If they’re not here, we don’t have that incident which killed so many and badly wounded so many,” he said.
Trump reiterated his pledge to build a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico — inspiring the crowd to chant “Build the wall!”
And he referred to the shootings of police officers in several cities, in apparent retaliation for the killings of black men by police.
“If we keep going the way it is, our whole country is becoming different,” he said. “They’re shooting our police at record levels.”
He also pointed to attacks in Germany and Paris and said, as he has previously, that fewer would have been killed if there were more people armed, so that bullets were flying in the opposite direction.
“We have to get smart,” he said. “This is how the world works.”
Maine’s governor praised Trump for telling it the way it is and blamed the media for being tough, eliciting loud boos from the audience.
“They attack him every single day,” LePage said. “They love to sensationalize a few comments and then they make a big issue out of it.”Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert