During a 90-minute speech to thousands of supporters in Billings Thursday, President Donald Trump made the case for Matt Rosendale to unseat Sen. Jon Tester. The president's speech mixed attacks specifically on Tester with general attacks on national Democrats.
The University of Montana School of Journalism’s Community News Project monitored the speech and produced this fact-check looking at Montana issues the president discussed.
Trump repeatedly criticized Tester for not supporting the tax cut adopted in December 2017.
The Montana senator did vote against the tax cut, as did all Senate Democrats. Before voting, he took to the floor to explain his decision.
“I wanted to construct a bipartisan bill that provided folks with tax relief without adding to the debt and I wanted to simplify our tax code without gutting provisions that would help build our middle class,” he said on the Senate floor. “But today we are stuck with a final bill that does none of those and our options are ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Tester did say he supported the expansion of child credits, the maintenance of certain medical deductions and the lowering of income tax brackets that he said would allow “you to keep a few extra bucks in your pocket.” But he said the bill unfairly benefited the richest Americans and would lead to a larger debt burden on future generations.
President Trump specifically mentioned the tax cut would mean the average family of four in Montana would bring home $2,281 more this year. Although we could not confirm that specific number, the Montana Department of Revenue projected the “average Montana household” would pay $1,618 less in taxes and the non-profit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated the average savings would be $1,670.
The president criticized Tester for opposing his first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed.
Tester did vote against approving Gorsuch to the high court. In explaining his decision, Tester cited the justice’s positions on privacy, corporate personhood and abortion as not being “where Montanans are,” according to an interview with MTN News at the time.
Success on Veterans
During the address, Trump highlighted two key veterans bills that he said he had successfully signed into law — the Veterans Choice Act and Veterans Accountability Act. Both of these were signed by the president, but he did not mention the central role Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, played in their passage.
Tester sponsored the Veterans Choice Act, which creates opportunities for veterans to go outside the VA to see private doctors in certain situations.
He also served as a co-sponsor on the Veterans Accountability and Whistleblowers Protection Act. This was one of the pieces of legislation Tester himself highlighted in an ad released Thursday. The ad mixes footage of Trump praising the bills and local reporters in Montana noting the role Tester played in writing or co-sponsoring the original bill.
VA Secretary Nomination
During his speech, the president criticized Tester for his role in raising alarms about Trump’s selection to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This spring, Trump nominated Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to head the agency. Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, released a list of allegations in April against Jackson’s character, citing conversations with “colleagues and former colleagues” of the admiral. The allegations included unethically prescribing medications, drinking on the job, crashing a government vehicle while drunk and creating a hostile work environment. He issued the summary after sharing it with the Republican chairman of the VA committee.
The White House responded with an immediate investigation into the most serious allegations. Records indicated that, although Jackson had been involved in three collisions while driving a government vehicle, none was his fault or involved alcohol. A study of quarterly audits going back two and a half years showed that Jackson at no point prescribed medication in a way that could be described as “reckless.”
The Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General opened an investigation into Jackson's behavior. Although Trump said the allegations against Jackson are false, the IG investigation's results are pending.
Jackson withdrew his nomination one day after the release of the allegations. The president tweeted his disapproval of Tester, calling on him to resign.
Tester responded: “It’s my duty to make sure Montana veterans get what they need and have earned.”
The president said in his speech that he had "fixed Dodd-Frank,'' the legislation passed after the banking collapse in 2008 to impose stricter standards on the financial industry.
Tester co-sponsored the bill, signed by Trump, to relax Dodd-Frank regulations on rural banks.
According to the New York Times, the legislation "stops far short of unwinding the toughened regulatory regime put in place to prevent the nation's biggest banks from engaging in risky behavior, but it represents a substantial watering down of Obama-era rules governing a large swath of the banking system. The legislation will leave fewer than 10 big banks in the United States subject to stricter federal oversight, freeing thousands of banks with less than $250 billion in assets from a post-crisis crackdown that they have long complained is too onerous.''
Trump claimed an increase of 2.5 million tons of coal from Montana during the first eight months of 2018.
This claim is mostly true. Montana reported a 20 percent increase in coal production compared to the same period in 2016, according to The Billings Gazette. Experts appear uncertain that the uptick will continue, though, as one of the major consumers of Montana coal in Colstrip entered a second month of closure due to failing to meet federal pollution standards.
Trump repeatedly accused Democrats of being the party of “open borders” and supporting elimination of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. He also repeatedly tied Tester to the issue, saying he will vote with national Democrats on immigration, including voting to protect so-called “sanctuary cities.”
But last month the union that represents Border Patrol agents endorsed Tester for re-election, saying “Senator Jon Tester is a relentless defender of our border and our country,” adding the group stand, ”with him in his re-election for a safer and more secure border.”
The same group has assailed what they call the “Democrats’ dream of open borders and their unrelenting opposition to securing our border.”
The Trump administration and others have tagged Tester with supporting so-called “sanctuary cities.” These are places, often large cities like New York and Los Angeles, that prohibit police from questioning people about their immigration status or refusing requests by national immigration authorities to detain people beyond their release date. The Senate considered two bills that would financially punish cities for pursuing such policies. Both bills needed to attract 60 votes in the Senate to move to a final vote and Tester voted against ending debate.
Lee Banville, Paul Hamby, Melissa Loveridge, Emily Schabacker and Dennis Swibold contributed to this report.