PANAMA CITY BEACH — President Donald Trump’s chuckle at an audience member’s suggestion that Mexican migrants be shot apparently garnered most of the national media’s focus from the president’s local rally on Wednesday.
At an event that area officials had hoped would refocus national attention on Bay County’s need for more federal aid to recover from the Category 5 Hurricane Michael that hit Oct. 10, the brief exchange between Trump and the crowd instead drew most of the national media’s attention and created an apparently hostile view of the Panhandle.
From USA Today to the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times, the top story that came from Trump’s campaign rally in Panama City Beach was about the exchange.
Late into the rally, Trump was talking about the need for a wall at the U.S. and Mexico border, then asked rhetorically about migrants, “how do you stop these people?”
According to multiple reports, an audience member shouted “shoot them!”
Trump then chuckled and said, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that,” referring to the audience member’s statement. He then repeated, “only in the Panhandle.”
Trump’s comments then drew laughter from the audience of thousands.
News about national coverage of the rally and the exchange itself garnered hundreds of Facebook comments from area residents on Thursday — many of whom expressed anger at the national media’s coverage or at Trump’s response to the exchange, while others indicated embarrassment at how the Panhandle was being portrayed.
“Let’s report on some of the important facts from the rally," Amanda Nichols Manahan wrote on Facebook. "Not a silly comment made by someone in the crowd. Geez the media is always looking to stir controversy.”
Riley Anttila posted on facebook that, “This is the most biased way to discuss this topic. Pick apart every word. Ugh. So annoying how we can’t just be proud for funding and the rebuilding of Tyndall.”
While Trump’s response to the audience member drew most of the national media’s attention, the president made significant statements at the rally about more federal disaster aid for the Panhandle.
Trump promised a higher 90% federal reimbursement rate for hurricane recovery spending by local governments, which would save taxpayers millions of dollars. Currently, federal reimbursement is set at 75% of the county’s estimated $661 million in damage costs, leaving the other 25% to be split evenly between the state and county. The county’s 12.5% share equates to $80 million.
Trump also said $448 million in U.S. Housing and Urban Development disaster recovery funds were being allocated to the state and promised Tyndall Air Force Base would be rebuilt.
That news, however, seemed lost in the shuffle, as well as comments the president made about the nation's commitment to helping the area rebuild and the continued need.
“The lame-stream media is trying too hard. Always picking and choosing stupid comments to “focus” on," Cheryl Cupp Burnette said on Facebook. "This was an off-the-cuff remark and our president handled it masterfully. He was joking, people. We were there. His list of accomplishments is astounding and his plans for the area are fabulous! THAT is the REAL FOCUS.”
Others were also frustrated with how the exchange made the Panhandle look, not wanting to be characterized as a group of people that would endorse shooting migrants and pointing that not everyone agrees.
“It definitely doesn’t reflect well on our community and even he acknowledged that,” Alissa Pelham wrote, referring to Trump. “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with vigilantes murdering immigrants. That is how I took it. Ironically, I bet many of the people attending this rally had repairs to their homes or businesses completed by undocumented immigrants.”
Kelly Duncan was also unhappy with how the area was portrayed because of the shooting comment.
“Regardless of who said it, the comment reflects very poorly on an area that relies on tourists,” Duncan wrote. “It was absolutely shameful for Bay County and shameful for the U.S.”