A protester, centre left, and a Trump supporter, centre right, scuffle during a rally for Donald Trump in Cleveland, Ohio.
Donald Trump yesterday trained his fire on protesters disrupting his rallies, branding them “thugs” and extremists, as White House rivals warned the Republican’s heated rhetoric was dangerously fanning tensions.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton issued a stern warning after a Trump rally in Chicago was called off amid scenes of violence ahead of a crucial round of nomination votes tomorrow night.
“If you play with matches, you’re going to start a fire you can’t control. That’s not leadership, that’s political arson,” she said.
But Mr Trump denied his extreme statements on immigrants and Muslims had exacerbated tensions, blaming problems on “organised thugs” yesterday.
After a demonstrator tried to rush on stage during Trump’s rally in Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday night (AEDT), the candidate made unverified claims that the man was linked to Islamic State.
“So, the judge let him go. And then one of my people said, wow. They found his name, and it was probably ISIS or ISIS-related. Do you believe it? Certainly, he’s not in love with our country, that I can tell you, okay?” Mr Trump said.
According to the Dayton Daily’s website, the man is an anti-racism activist named Thomas Dimassimo, 22, who was filmed last year at a protest that involved students standing on US flags, holding signs saying, “Not my flag”.
In support of his claim, Mr Trump tweeted a link to a video of the flag protest, dubbed over with Islamic chants in what appeared to be a crude hoax intended to suggest ties to extremism.
Mr Trump described the Chicago skirmishes as a “planned attack” by organised agitators against his supporters — the “nice folks”.
He blamed “our communist friend”, the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has urged Mr Trump to act against violence at his rallies and denied encouraging his backers to disrupt them.
“Where do these people come from?” Mr Trump asked. “They’re Bernie’s crowd.”
The violence flared after throngs of protesters — many of them blacks and Latinos angered by Mr Trump’s anti-immigrant stance — massed at the Chicago venue in a tense standoff with the tycoon’s supporters, with fistfights breaking out as the meeting was called off.
Trump hosted two huge meetings in the heartland state of Ohio and one in Kansas that passed off without major troubles but with groups of protesters picketing the venues.
In Cleveland, protesters gathered outside the exhibition centre hosting Mr Trump’s rally, holding signs that read “Dump Trump!,” and “Donald Trump: Making America Hate Again.” Half a dozen police on horseback watched a heated verbal exchange between black protesters and mostly white Trump supporters who yelled in their faces: “Get a job. Get a job.”
The evening rally in Kansas City was repeatedly disrupted by protests. “Get ‘em out,” Mr Trump said. “I hope they arrest these people, because they’re really violating all of us, okay?” he said, vowing to press charges.
Bill Burns, 41, of Sheffield Lake, Ohio, who came to cheer Mr Trump in Cleveland, was clear on who was to blame for the troubles.
“All the problems are from the protesters,” said Mr Burns, who wore a T-shirt reading “EBOLA,” with the “O” made to resemble Barack Obama’s campaign logo.
“They’re the ones out there, you see them standing on the American flag. What do you expect to happen? You’re just adding fuel to the fire.”
The campaign stops came ahead of key elections expected to further winnow the Republican field, with Marco Rubio and John Kasich facing make-or-break tests in their home states.
Mr Trump’s three remaining rivals for the Republican nomination — Ted Cruz, Senator Rubio and Mr Kasich — condemned the rally chaos.
Senator Cruz scored a small victory, trouncing Mr Trump with 66.3 per cent of the vote in the Wyoming caucus, against 19.5 per cent for Senator Rubio and just 7.2 per cent for Mr Trump.
Senator Cruz also picked up one delegate in Guam, though the US island territory’s five other delegates remain uncommitted. Senator Rubio won the caucuses in the US capital Washington.