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President Donald Trump greets Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., upon arrival at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas for a fundraising visit and to give a speech at the Nevada Republican Party convention Saturday, June 23, 2018. CREDIT: Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
President Donald Trump arrives at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas for a fund raising visit and to give a speech at the Nevada Republican Party convention Saturday, June 23, 2018. CREDIT: Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

President Donald Trump acknowledged Saturday that Sen. Dean Heller, who stopped just short of renouncing Trump during the 2016 campaign, was “a little bit shaky at the beginning,” but “once we got in there he’s been rock solid and he’s been great.”

The comments came during a speech at the Nevada Republican Party Convention in Las Vegas, the president’s third trip to the state since being elected in 2016. The president’s visit came as part of a whirlwind trio of events aimed at boosting the Heller’s reelection bid and the campaigns of other Nevada Republicans on the 2018 ballot, including House hopeful Danny Tarkanian and aspiring governor candidate Adam Laxalt.

“He cut your taxes and nobody fought harder to cut taxes than Dean Heller,” Trump told an audience at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino, where he also unveiled a nickname for Heller’s Democratic opponent Rep. Jacky Rosen — “Wacky Jacky” — and claimed a vote for her was a vote to raise taxes.

Rosen shot back, saying in a statement that Trump “is attacking me with lies and petty insults because I’m not afraid to stand up to him.”

“Dean Heller has been a rubber stamp for Donald Trump in Washington, caving to the President’s divisive agenda at Nevada’s expense,” she said. “This was Senator Heller’s reward for his loyalty.”

Trump’s visit and participation in a fundraiser marks a culmination for Heller, a one-time staunch Trump critic who in 2015 donated a contribution from the future president to charity and said he was “99 percent” opposed to his candidacy following the publication of sexually inappropriate remarks made by Trump in 2005 on the set of Access Hollywood.

Heller, who revealed nine months after the general election that he voted for Trump, has slowly aligned himself with the president on numerous issues over the past 20 months, especially on the issue of Republican-led efforts to reform the tax code last year. On Saturday, the two hugged on the tarmac and on stage at the convention, and Trump promised that “I will be back a lot” ahead of November to help him and others on the ticket.

The state’s senior senator has incessantly promoted the president’s visit — his campaign has sent out several emails from the “MAGA Task Force” urging supporters to sign a card welcoming Trump to the state.

Heller is counting on presidential support to help him ahead of a fiercely competitive re-election battle, and as the only Republican up for reelection in a state won by Hillary Clinton. Recent Gallup polling puts Trump’s approval rating at his highest since immediately after his inauguration, and with roughly 90 percent of Republicans reporting favorable views of the president.

President Donald J. Trump, right, shakes hands with Senator Dean Heller during the Nevada Republican Party Convention inside the Suncoast Hotel and Casino on Saturday, June 23, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

During his freewheeling, 38-minute speech to the Nevada Republican convention, Trump touted several of Heller’s recent legislative priorities, including moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and funding a program allowing veterans to receive health-care services from a community provider paid for by the Veterans Administration.

Trump also touched on a laundry list of other topics, touting his “great chemistry” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in their attempts to reach an accord and blasting trade imbalances with China, Mexico and others.

“We're the piggybank that everybody likes to rob from,” he said.

He spent relatively little time addressing this week’s uproar over immigrant family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, except to say that his team was doing a great job handling a difficult situation and that the Obama and Bush administrations also bore some of the responsibility.

More broadly, he argued that the U.S. needed to be strong on immigration, characterizing Democrats’ stance as "open borders, let MS-13 all over our country."

“Our immigration laws are a laughingstock all over the world … people walk in, they put a foot in, ‘Please, would you like to register?’ Other countries, they say get the hell out of here,” he said, adding that instead of 5,000 more judges, he wants more Border Patrol and ICE officers. “If they see any weakness, they will come by the millions. We have to have strong borders.”

Trump has referenced “thousands of judges” in recent weeks — alternately saying the country already has thousands of judges and that it’s trying to hire thousands of judges — to criticize what he describes as a “crazy system” of giving immigrants who enter illegally a court case. PolitiFact, however, has noted that the U.S. currently has fewer than 400 judges working on immigration cases.

He also rattled off a list of accomplishments during his term, including getting rid of “the disastrous individual mandate where you pay a fortune for the privilege of not paying for health insurance” and ensuring Obamacare is “on its last legs.” Without naming names, he criticized Sen. John McCain for his “thumbs down” gesture as he cast a decisive vote against an Obamacare repeal bill last summer.

“That was not good ... It was a done deal and then he walked in, ‘thumbs down.’ It’s alright. We essentially gutted it anyway,” he said, adding that if people see health care costs rising, it’s the Democrats’ fault.

Rising costs on Nevada’s health insurance marketplace has largely been blamed on the Trump administration’s decision to end so-called cost-sharing reduction payments and subsequent congressional inaction to address rising insurance rates.

President Donald J. Trump speaks during the Nevada Republican Party Convention inside the Suncoast Hotel and Casino on Saturday, June 23, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

Trump touched down in Las Vegas just before 11 a.m. on Saturday and was greeted by Treasure Island casino owner and former business partner Phil Ruffin and his wife Oleksandra. On the tarmac, a cadre of Nevada Republican candidates lined up to greet him, including Heller, Laxalt, Tarkanian and Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald.

The president’s visit is his third to Nevada since taking office — stopping in Las Vegas after the mass shooting in October and a stop in Reno for the American Legion’s annual conference in August. He also attended a fundraiser for the state Republican Party in Lake Tahoe in August 2016.

Trump’s motorcade passed through a gauntlet of protesters before arriving at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino, where he was to headline a private fundraiser for Heller where tickets went for $50,000 per couple, or $15,000 a pair to get a photo with the president. Non-delegates to the state convention were charged $250 to attend the midday event.

In brief remarks at the convention delivered ahead of the president’s address, Heller touted positive job creation numbers in Nevada over the previous months, and largely credited the passage of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act last year for the bump in employment.

“I wrote it, and I fought for it, and I’m so pleased that this president signed it,” he said. “And there was a purpose for this bill, and that was to reverse the Obama nightmare.”

Laxalt followed with a speech attacking his general election opponent, Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak. He took a page from Trump by giving Sisolak a new nickname — “Shady Steve” — and his campaign simultaneously unveiled an attack website by the same name.

“Shady Steve is a career politician who has spent decades complaining about the problems and little time getting to work on the solutions,” Laxalt said. “He’s someone who put political favors ahead of our priorities. This election is a choice between leadership and cronyism; real solutions or a political agenda that will take our unique state the way of California.”

The criticisms are an echo of Laxalt’s initial volleys in what’s expected to be a vicious campaign to replace termed-out Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Laxalt’s first ad raised the specter of pay-to-play deals from Sisolak’s time on the commission.

In the speech, where he prompted the audience to shout “Shady Steve” after each charge, Laxalt blamed Sisolak for Nevada’s bottom-ranking education system and regulations that are “choking Clark County businesses with red tape.” Although Laxalt is the state’s chief law enforcement officer, he said Sisolak’s leadership is why Clark County residents “don’t feel safe at night” and crime is on the rise.

“They’re going to say I’m a puppet for the president. They’re already saying it,” Laxalt said. “But Donald Trump didn’t fail Clark County for decades like he has.”

Trump gave Laxalt a few shout-outs during the speech, saying he had a tough race ahead of him but was a “tough cookie.” Laxalt was seen riding next to Trump in a limousine heading away from the airport upon Trump’s arrival.

Attorney General Adam Laxalt speaks during the Nevada Republican Party Convention inside the Suncoast Hotel and Casino on Saturday, June 23, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

Trump also gave brief remarks and participated in a small business “roundtable” at the South Point Hotel and Casino with Heller, Laxalt, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and a handful of Nevada business leaders, including Witkoff Group CEO Steven Witkoff. South Point CEO Michael Gaughan, a prominent Trump supporter who doubled the bonuses paid to his 2,300 full time employees after the tax overhaul bill was approved last year, is out of the country and did not participate in the roundtable.

Witkoff, a longtime friend of Trump, has credited the Republican-led cuts to corporate taxes as the primary reason he invested in the mothballed Fontainebleau property — now called “The Drew” on the Las Vegas Strip.  

Witkoff, who said he named the 4,000-room resort after late son Andrew, said the project would take about $3 billion to complete with construction activity beginning in July 2019. He said it would lead to 3,500 construction jobs and 7,000 full time jobs.

“Overall this administration's policies, which also include deregulation, has lead to significant GDP growth,” he said. “Positive business activity is made possible when government, private investors, labor come together in a way that benefits everybody.”

People begin taking their seats to hear President Donald J. Trump speak during the Nevada Republican Party Convention inside the Suncoast Hotel and Casino on Saturday, June 23, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent
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