Trump rallies for Herbster, defends Fortenberry and attacks Bacon, Sasse

By: - May 1, 2022 11:09 pm

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally for Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster in Greenwood, Nebraska, on Sunday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

GREENWOOD, Nebraska — Former President Donald Trump and more than 3,000 of his fans brought his 2020-focused road show to Nebraska on Sunday, where Trump defended GOP gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster from groping allegations by eight women.

Trump is supporting Herbster in Nebraska’s Republican governor’s primary race. Herbster, the Conklin Co. CEO, is in a tight, three-way race with University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen and State Sen. Brett Lindstrom leading up to the May 10 primary election.

Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster gives an interview to One America News Network before the rally. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Trump called Herbster “a good man” who’s been “maligned.” But he spent the bulk of his one hour and 40 minute speech re-litigating his own loss to President Joe Biden, including repeating debunked conspiracy theories. He also lashed out at two Republican elected officials from Nebraska. 

Trump called U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse a “gnat” who was good to him for two years, when Sasse needed an endorsement to win re-election, but he said Sasse showed his true self afterward. Trump called 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon “bad news” and asked Nebraskans not to vote for him again.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., during a hearing in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

He did not say why. Bacon was mildly critical of Trump after Jan. 6, 2021, saying the then-president bore some responsibility for what happened when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

“Bacon’s been there a long time,” Trump said of the three-term Republican representing the Omaha area. “He’s not good. … I think Bacon’s a bad guy.”

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump, who has bashed Bacon before for voting for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, said Bacon’s little-known GOP opponent, Steve Kuehl, “loves Nebraska.” “I think Steve will do well,” Trump said, stopping short of an endorsement. “Good luck, Steve, whoever the hell you are.”

Bacon, reached Sunday, pointed out that in winning his 2020 re-election, he received 17,000 votes more than Trump did in the 2nd District. Trump lost the 2nd District. Bacon said he is “grateful to our constituents for their faith, and I work for them, not him. We are focused on 2022 and not backwards.” He had endorsed Trump in 2019.

Sasse’s staff did not return messages Sunday seeking comment. 

Trump, Herbster and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell criticized the Nebraska political establishment generally, without naming anyone specifically. 

“The establishment has taken over … the Nebraska Republican Party,” Herbster said. “They’re trying to scare me out of the race. It’s not going to work.”

Herbster said his opponents might beat him, but “they sure as hell ain’t gonna win the war.”

Trump tried to give Herbster cover against the allegations of groping. Herbster is “the last person to do any of this stuff,” Trump said. 

“What did they say he’s done?” Trump asked. “Did he talk to someone?” 

Eight women alleged in an April 14 Nebraska Examiner article that Herbster groped them.

Trump said that Herbster is “innocent of these despicable charges,” and that Herbster has no time to defend himself before the election.

Herbster has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. He sued State Sen. Julie Slama for defamation. She was the first of the eight women to speak on the record about being groped. Herbster also paid for a campaign ad attacking Slama, who has counter-sued him, alleging sexual battery.

A second woman who alleged that Herbster groped her, and three people who said they witnessed a groping incident have since spoken on the record. 

Slama’s lawyer, Dave Lopez, said Herbster has a chance to tell his side of what happened, under oath, at depositions that have been scheduled this week in Slama’s lawsuit.

“Mr. Herbster is legally required to appear and testify Friday morning at the Johnson County (Nebraska) Courthouse,” Lopez said.

Herbster tried at times to focus the rally on himself, calling it “my show.” He talked about cutting taxes and outlawing the teaching of critical race theory and sex education. But Trump and other speakers kept steering the event in different directions: 

Lindell at one point attacked Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, saying he hoped they would sue him. Lindell has attacked voting machines as inaccurate and flawed.

Former NFL player Jack Brewer, who introduced Herbster, echoed a theme of Herbster’s campaign about bringing God back into the public square. He called on God to cast out Herbster’s accusers, saying, “I cast that out in the name of Jesus!” He described opponents of Herbster and Trump as satanic forces.

Trump at one point defended former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, the former 1st District congressman who is scheduled to be sentenced in June for three felonies. Trump said it was “very unfair” that Fortenberry might end up “in jail for a tiny amount of money.” 

Fortenberry’s campaign accepted more than $30,000 in foreign money, which is against the law. He was charged with lying to the FBI about it and trying to conceal what he knew. Fortenberry resigned his seat after being convicted. His attorneys asked the court last week to throw out his convictions

After the rally, Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb said Nebraska voters should be turned off by “the cabal of shame.” “Trump looked desperate, invoking all his old one-liners, as he tries to cling to relevancy,” Kleeb said. “The Republican Party is deeply divided as they head into the primary.”

She called on voters to consider State Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat, and break up the state’s “corrupt, one-party rule.”

Herbster’s national campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway did not speak in person on Sunday but said in a video message that Nebraska Republicans have a simple choice: Support Herbster because Trump does.

Baylie Nielsen and Kelly Robinson of Bellevue came to the rally to see Trump. Both said they plan to vote for Herbster because Trump endorsed him. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

For Baylie Nielsen and Kelly Robinson of Bellevue, that endorsement could be enough. Both said they plan to vote for Herbster because Trump endorsed him. They came to see Trump on Friday, and when storms postponed the first rally, they came back Sunday.

“We wouldn’t have missed it,” Nielsen said of Trump’s delayed appearance.

Traveling minister Kathy Brueggemann of Beatrice said she travels with Herbster and came to support him. He’s a good man, she said, “better than people say.”

Omaha resident Dale Leeper said he came to hear Trump talk about helping the country recover from the damage he said Biden has done. He said he might vote for Herbster because he believes Gov. Pete Ricketts is “dirty tricking” him.

Herbster and his campaign have claimed the women’s allegations are part of a conspiracy involving Ricketts and Pillen, which they have denied. 

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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