WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump spoke up for a Republican senator Tuesday facing a runoff election and fierce criticism after making a joke about a "public hanging."
Trump said he plans to hold at least two campaign events, possibly even a third, to support Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in her runoff against Democrat Mike Espy.
"Cindy Hyde-Smith is a spectacular woman. She's a great senator," the president said as he embarked on a trip to Florida for the holidays. "She came in and she's done a fantastic job in a short period of time."
Trump was asked about the controversy surrounding Hyde-Smith. She has been criticized for both her recent comments that she'd be glad to attend a "public hanging" for a friend and a video that appeared to show Hyde-Smith supporting voter suppression.
"She made a statement, which I know that she feels really bad about it, and was just sort of said in jest," Trump said. "She's a tremendous woman and it's a shame that she has to go through this."
The president is scheduled to stump for Hyde-Smith in Tupelo and Biloxi on Nov. 26, one day before the runoff will be held.
"I think she's going to do very well," Trump said. "I've gotten to know her well. She's a person that loves the people of Mississippi. She loves the people of this country. She's gonna be a great senator."
Trump has conducted more than 40 such rallies over the course of this election year. Despite his stepped-up pace in October and November, the Republicans lost control of the House after the midterms, though they kept their majority in the Senate.
Hyde-Smith has been pushing back against fallout from a comment she made at a campaign stop in Tupelo earlier this month. While praising a longtime friend, she said, "I would fight a circular saw for him. If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."
The "hanging" comment quickly went viral, with critics saying it conjured up images of lynchings and Mississippi's racist past. Her opponent, Espy, is African-American.
Democrats have also accused Hyde-Smith of supporting voter suppression, citing a video in which she can be heard saying that "maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult" for some people to vote, and "so I think that's a great idea."
In a statement, Hyde-Smith spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said, "Obviously Sen. Hyde-Smith was making a joke and clearly the video was selectively edited."
The Hyde-Smith campaign later tweeted: "It's ok to still have a sense of humor in America isn't it?"
Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP, blasted Hyde-Smith for her “public hanging’’ comment, calling it consistent with the current toxic political environment.
“We’ve seen this playbook before of fear-mongering and using racial hatred as the medium to communicate,’’ said Johnson, a Mississippi native.
He said those comments and others will likely generate energy among African-Americans to vote.
“We shouldn’t be operating our election cycle based on the lowest common denominator using race or religion to scare people to the polls,’’ he said.
Jamal Watkins, NAACP vice president of civic engagement, said there’s been a demographic shift and an increase in black voter turnout in the South, including in Mississippi.
“A few cycles ago there would never be a (Democrat in the) runoff in Mississippi according to the data and analytics, but that has changed,’’ he said, adding that the NAACP will continue working with other national groups on get out the vote efforts. “We’re now within reach of actually determining who the winner is of these key races.”
Contributing: Deborah Berry, David Jackson