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Trump diehards dismiss Russia scandal: 'Show me the proof – or get off his case'

John Picard, 74, a retired carpenter, at the Trolley Stop restaurant in East Bangor.
John Picard, 74, a retired carpenter, at the Trolley Stop restaurant in East Bangor. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Nobody really knows what Donald Trump’s supporters would do if the president really did stand in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue and shoot someone.

For now, the president has merely fired the director of the FBI and been saddled with a special counsel investigating possible links between his 2016 campaign and an alleged Russian effort to interfere in the election.

And it’s very clear what most Trump supporters in one county in Pennsylvania think of that.

“It’s all bullshit,” said Joe Conicelli, a merchant selling artisanal peanut butter at the weekly farmers’ market in Bethlehem. Conicelli grew up in the area and said he had been with Trump “all the way”.

“Let the guy do his thing, then judge him,” Conicelli said. “The Democrats wanted him out three months ago, so what’s the difference? It’s just bullshit.”

Over five months for our series The Promise, the Guardian has been interviewing Trump supporters in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, a former manufacturing giant and Democratic stronghold that voted twice for Barack Obama before falling for Trump.

No previous setback in the Trump presidency – not the fumbled travel ban, the stumble on health care reform or the fall of national security adviser Michael Flynn – had seemed to shake Trump support here, where many Democrats switched parties to back the only candidate that excited them.

But what about the avalanche of dire headlines that began with the firing of James Comey? Trump may have famously claimed he could shoot someone and still not lose voters, but have the woes which beset him on all sides begun to challenge his most extravagant declaration?

It’s plain sabotage, Trump backers said on Thursday, echoing a line put out by the president’s campaign machine earlier this week.

“They’re gonna pick on him because he won,” said Sandy Emrich, manager of the Trolley Shop restaurant in East Bangor. “The Democrats are making it that way. He didn’t do anything any other president didn’t do.”

Emrich was slinging plates around a table of regulars who could not have agreed more.

“Let the man do his job,” said Jeffrey Manzi, a retiree. “If there’s something wrong, bring it out. Bring it out. Otherwise let the man alone. It’s, like, non-stop. It’s crazy.”

“As far as impeachment, I don’t believe it,” said John Picard, a carpenter. “No one has shown me any evidence at all. Nothing. Show me something. Show me the proof. Or get off his case.”

Northampton County resident Russell Frantz cools off on the porch.
Northampton County resident Russell Frantz cools off on the porch. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

“This Russian thing, I think that’s stupid,” said Joan Hallett, who owns the place with her husband. “We didn’t vote because the Russians tried to change our opinions. They don’t realize that the people were tired of Obama. And they wanted a change.”

“If they’d leave him alone and quit contriving stuff against him, he’d do a hell of a job,” said John Griffin, a retired elevator technician. “If they get rid of this contrived stuff, he’d be a hell of a president.”

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“I mean if he goes to the bathroom, he did it the wrong way,” said Anthony DeFranco, a general contractor. “If he has two scoops of ice cream, they say he’s a pig.”

‘Now they got what they bought’

It was above 90F and a day to look for shade. Russell Frantz, who said he was tired of politics, cooled his heels on a friend’s porch in Ackermanville. At at an estate auction in Bethlehem, about 40 people congregated under ash and fruit trees to bid a dollar or two apiece on old furniture, tools, baskets and scrap metal.

“I predict that Trump will be going down,” said Sam Richie, 69, a retired government worker, carrying a carton of motor oil back to his truck. “He will be leaving office, literally in probably weeks or months.”

Sam Richie, 69, retired, after an estate sale in Bethlehem.
Sam Richie, 69, retired, after an estate sale in Bethlehem. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Northampton voted for Trump by four points despite decades of voting for Democrats at every level of the ballot, thanks to the powerful steel union and the predominance of blue-collar industry. Those who went for Trump may be staunch, but this area has a tradition of Democratic support.

In his “young and foolish” days, Richie said, he had been a Republican, but his opinion of his neighbors who voted for Trump was low.

“Now they got what they bought,” Richie said. “The guy’s been nothing but a disaster from day one. He’s done everything that is repulsive in our society, and people are standing by him.

“He’s nothing but an orangutan. He has the mind of a four-year-old.”

The crowd perked up when the auctioneer announced that the family of the deceased had authorized him on the spot to sell the three-bedroom brick and stucco farmhouse. “Remember, homes are flying off the shelf in the Lehigh Valley,” he said. The house sold in five minutes for $125,000, after an initial bid of $106,000.

A wooden sign of praying hands for the military in Ackermanville.
A wooden sign of praying hands for the military in Ackermanville. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Breaking off from the surprisingly high-stakes bidding, Gene DeLong, an auction company employee, said of Trump supporters: “They’re diehards. They’re diehards.”

DeLong described the political mood in the area before the election as “violent”.

“I went to the chiropractor one day, and he said, you know, yesterday a patient came in, a heavy man, a big man, he was crying,” DeLong said. “He said, ‘I had a physical fight with my brother-in-law over the election. We fought!’ And he screwed his back up and he had to go to the chiropractor.

“This is my opinion. The faster they do away with the separate parties, the better off we will be.”

Here was a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. Suggestions to discard the two-party system sprang spontaneously from both sides.

“I think you need one party,” said Picard, back at the diner. “Just one, that’s it. You vote for who you want, and they do their job, or they get out.”

Interactive political map

Larry Hallett, Joan’s husband, used to teach prophecy classes, in addition to many other pursuits. “I’d like to see it work out to where he had some support from both sides, and everybody begin to come together,” Hallett said. “If that happened, Biblically, that would hold back antichrist for awhile. It’s as simple as that.”

‘We need this country to get back together’

In Washington on Thursday, Trump called the investigation of his presidential campaign a “witch hunt” and said the appointment of a special counsel was a “very negative thing” that “hurts our country terribly because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not unified country.”

But Trump supporters in Northampton County saw the special counsel as possibly a positive development, if the process served to lay the larger controversy to rest.

“I don’t think he was needed, but if it’s going to settle the issue once and for all, it might be worth it,” DeFranco, the contractor who is also a township supervisor, said of a special counsel. “But if they’re going to spend $40m or $50m on it like they did with Ken Starr back in the day, it’s just a waste of time.”

“I hope he gets a lot of help from the Democrats someday,” Picard, the contractor, said. “We need this country to get back together. And it’s so far down a hole, we need for it to be taken out. And that man, I believe, can do it.”

A man carries a chair purchased from an estate sale in Bethlehem.
A man carries a chair purchased from an estate sale in Bethlehem. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Asked to mention any setback which they would count as a strike against the president, Trump supporters offered positive reviews, particularly on news this week that immigration and customs enforcement had apparently stepped up arrests.

“I want – in all honesty I want all the illegals out,” said Emrich, the manager. “I want what’s given, my right to be an American – my right. I want to be first in line. If I need help, I want to be first, not somebody who doesn’t belong here.”

“Why do people think that they are entitled to healthcare free?” said Griffin. “Somebody’s got to go to work.”

Picard said the sudden support among Republicans in Congress for the appointment of special counsel to take charge of the Russian investigations was evidence of their weakness in the face of bad media coverage.

“They have to listen to their constituents, and their constituents are afraid,” Picard said. “The news is bad all the time, the guy’s never doing nothing right according to the news.”

But as Trump sets out for his first global tour as president, leaving behind a sea of troubles, his supporters remain ready to defend and excuse him.

“He’s a human being. Little mistakes are made, different words are used – and everybody does it. As far as I can see, he’s trying the dickens to do a good job.”

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This article titled "Trump diehards dismiss Russia scandal: 'Show me the proof – or get off his case'" was written by Tom McCarthy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for The Guardian on Friday 19 May 2017 01.56pm

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