Trump had other things on his mind, though, as Sanders was barely the focus of a Thursday night rally whose second half was repeatedly interrupted by protesters.
When he did bring up Sanders, the Republican frontrunner seemed surprisingly skittish.
“We all like Bernie, right? Do we all like Bernie?”
“No! Boo!” shouted the crowd back at Trump.
“OK, he wants a 90 percent tax. I wasn’t sure how to feel that out,” he said.
Trump talked about Sanders for less than two minutes, focusing the bulk of his usual stemwinder speech on the art of negotiation and guns, along with, of course, himself. He even managed to get in his regular attacks on former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
The event had been anticipated all week in Burlington.
The Trump campaign came under fire locally for distributing more than 20,000 tickets to the event, even though the theater’s capacity is limited to 1,400. Police officials defended the decision to allow the event to go forward on First Amendment grounds.
“If Phish was holding a free concert at the Flynn and gave away 20,000 free tickets, we would cancel the event out of public safety concerns. We are committed to accommodating the campaign because political speech is the very essence of the First Amendment,” Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told the Burlington Free Press.
The Daily Beast did not observe 20,000 people outside the Flynn Center, but there were large crowds of pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators, as well as a large swath of Sanders supporters. The two groups did not physically interact, as they were separated by police barricades and Main Street. It was a lively scene featuring Trump supporters on one side patiently waiting in line and looking on with amusement at the drum-playing and candle-toting Sanders supporters.
The candles were part of some vague peace and unity demonstration.
“The candles to me symbolize light and enlightenment. They symbolize brightness as opposed to the darkness of hatred and bigotry and racism and exclusion,” said Arleen Sorkin, 60, of Williston, Vt.
The Sanders supporters were creative in their demonstrations of disdain for Trump, holding light-up signs while rolling out chants like “From Mexico to Palestine, border walls are a crime” and “Dump Trump in a lake, he’s not welcome in our state.”
Trump supporters were less creative in their insults, offering up retorts like “Get a job!” and “Take a shower!”
Standing in a sea of Sanders supporters outside the Flynn Center were two silent Trump supporters holding signs that read “Trump Before It’s Too Late.”
“I don’t think it needs an explanation. Why should I even explain it? The national debt, the wars, the lack of work, the lack of everything. It’s just not like it was when I was a teenager,” said Cathleen Laughy, 67, of Fairfax, Vt.
While the shouting and drumming continued outside, Trump supporters gradually filed into the Flynn Center and were greeted with a question:
“Are you a Trump supporter?”
Those who said no were turned away. Those who said yes were allowed to enter the security screening area.
In an emailed campaign statement, Trump defended the decision to question attendees before allowing them entry.
“We have more than 20,000 people that showed up for 1,400 spots,” he said. “I’m taking care of my people, not people who don’t want to vote for me or are undecided. They are loyal to me and I am loyal to them.”
The loyalty question turned out to be an imperfect screening mechanism for the event, which was repeatedly disrupted by protesters after the 30-minute mark. Dozens were ejected during the event’s final half hour. Things escalated to a point where audience members acted as narcs and called out others in the crowd they suspected of being potential protesters.
The crowd was largely tame and did not attack or physically confront protesters, leaving that to security.
At times it appeared as if Trump, who has been using a softer tone (for him, anyway) with protesters at his events, was trying to ignore them. But by the end of the night he was encouraging security to take away the coats of protesters and send them out into the cold Vermont night without winter gear.
“We’ll send it to him in a couple weeks,” said Trump of one protester’s coat.