Donald Trump Jr.’s appearance in Duluth on Wednesday featured a breezy 35-minute speech filled with punchlines aimed at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, familiar grievances and constant defense of his father, President Donald Trump.

“He sure is on fire for his father,” Sue Vrooman, 65, of Superior, said inside the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, where more than 230 supporters attended the campaign stop.

Like the president’s son, Vrooman and her husband, Bruce, 61, were eager to defend Trump, under fire since last week for an article in The Atlantic in which anonymous sources testify to Trump calling fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers.”

“Everyone in the room is on the record as saying it didn’t happen,” Trump Jr. said, referring to the story and some of its Republican rebuttals.

The Vroomans agreed that it couldn’t be possible. They’re a Gold Star family that lost their 28-year-old son, Jeremy Vrooman, in Iraq on July 15, 2008, when an improvised explosive device detonated while he was attempting to lead the clearing of a vast brick-making complex that had been used by al-Qaida.

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Their son’s decision to move first, before 90 others, may have saved lives, Bruce said.

The Vroomans attended a White House event with Trump in 2018 intended to honor roughly 50 other Gold Star families, they said.

“He does it every year,” Bruce said of Trump’s appreciation event.

“We can say for sure he’s not talking like that about our soldiers,” Sue said. “It’s completely and utterly false. He loves the military and has respect for all soldiers.”

Donald Trump Jr. smiles as people react to something he said during his appearance Wednesday, Sept. 9, at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Donald Trump Jr. smiles as people react to something he said during his appearance Wednesday, Sept. 9, at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Trump Jr. met with an eager crowd that called back to him throughout his speech.

“He loves America!” one woman shouted of the president.

“He does!” Trump Jr. replied.

The president’s son played up some familiar talking points and ranted about what he believes is an overreaction to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re all fed up with the quarantine nonsense,” Trump Jr. said, while also making light of “woke” culture and its “97 genders,” and calling out Biden’s fitness for office.

“Is (Biden) going to be there to make the tough decisions?” Trump Jr. said. “Is he going to be awake for the next Benghazi?”

Seats were set up apart to be socially distanced, and people mostly wore face masks at the event, protecting against COVID-19 and adhering to the state mandate.

Acting DECC director Roger Reinert said his staff had been observing Trump campaign staffers take temperatures of participants and enforce mask protocols.

“We’ve been very impressed with the campaign — both their messaging in advance and in following through with what they're supposed to do,” Reinert said.

As Trump spoke at the DECC, just over 30 counterprotesters gathered at a nearby park, Gichi-Ode’ Akiing, to read a “people’s proclamation” crafted by organizers in Duluth and Chisholm, where it was also read at the Iron Man statue during a “Rally for the Range” denouncing the six Iron Range mayors who publicly support Trump at the same time Wednesday evening.

“As Minnesotans, we the people of the Arrowhead region firmly reject the politics of hate and division,” the statement said.

It went on to declare support for the labor movement, environment, Indigenous people, immigrants, diversity, Black Lives Matter and access to voting.

Aaron Roessler, 21, of Duluth, was one of the organizers reading the statement into a bullhorn, which was sanitized with a wipe as it was passed to other speakers.

“We knew that the message we wanted was unity. That’s why Trump keeps coming here ... to try to tell us there’s more that divides us than brings us together up here in the Northland,” Roessler said.

Trump Jr. was the second Trump surrogate to appear in Duluth in the last 12 days, joining Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke in the Duluth port in August.

The Trump-Pence ticket is vying for reelection against Biden and running mate Kamala Harris on Nov. 3.

In reference to mail-in voting, Trump Jr. said: “The election is not on Nov. 3. It’s right now,” spurring supporters to encourage new voters.

The appearance was light on policy, with Trump Jr. asking for trust on the economy.

“The fundamentals of this economy is still really strong,” Trump Jr. said. “That’s why Donald Trump is the guy to get us out of this mess. He’s the guy who can do it again.”

Outside at the counter-event, Duluth activist Allen Richardson led chants inspired by news that broke Wednesday claiming Trump knew of the seriousness of COVID-19, but downplayed it publicly.

Allen Richardsom of Duluth leads an anti-Trump chant Wednesday at the Forward Coalition rally in response to Donald Trump Jr.'s visit to Duluth at the same time at Gitchi-ode’ Akiing in downtown Duluth.  (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
Allen Richardsom of Duluth leads an anti-Trump chant Wednesday at the Forward Coalition rally in response to Donald Trump Jr.'s visit to Duluth at the same time at Gitchi-ode’ Akiing in downtown Duluth. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

“Trump knew,” Richardson chanted.

“Worse than the flu,” the crowd responded.

Polka musician Florian Chmielewski, 93, of Sturgeon Lake, attended the mini-rally at the DECC. He served in the Minnesota Legislature in the 1970s through part of the 1990s as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. It's an affiliation he responds to no more.

“Trump 100%,” Chmielewski said. “He has us out of wars; we’re free. He’s also pro-life, and that's me, too.”

The president has stressed Minnesota since he narrowly missed winning the state in 2016. That year, he lost the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton by 44,765 votes, or 1.52%, his second-narrowest loss.

"They say we can't win Minnesota; I disagree," Trump Jr. said to begin his speech. "When I see what’s going on around the country, it’s awesome. They‘ve had enough. Blue-collar Democrat areas? It's 95(%) to 5(%) Trump signs."

Arlone Chapinski, 83, of Duluth, was excited to come to the DECC with a cousin and friends, scoring seats through the office of U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown.

"I see him on TV and think he's a super speaker," Chapinski said of Trump Jr. "I want to see what he says in person."

Chapinski has favored the president from the beginning, calling him someone who relates to her and "speaks my language."

News Tribune reporter Jimmy Lovrien contributed to this story.

This story was updated at 8 p.m. Sept. 9 with additional information from the rally and accompanying protests, as well as more photos and a video. It was originally posted at 5:27 p.m. Sept. 9.