WEBSTER SPRINGS, W.Va. — No sitting president has ever visited here before. So it was a pretty big deal when 14 local high school students in a civics class had President Trump talking to them in their classroom Wednesday, all thanks to a Skype video call that Sen. Joe Manchin was having with them.
Senior Brennan Williams, 18, is still grinning ear to ear a few days after the experience. "Well, I mean, I've never talked to somebody that important before, and it was just crazy," he said of initially talking to Manchin. "Then, the president of the United States calls the senator and then decides he wants to talk to us, well, that was even crazier. I just couldn't stop smiling; I still can't."
His classmate Parker Stout, 18, says it was an honor he will never forget: "We prepared for our Skype call with Sen. Manchin by watching the State of the Union Address Tuesday night. What we never expected was that that would include talking to the president."
Manchin said the once-in-a-lifetime event was organized by Webster County High School Principal Stacey Cutlip and his office to discuss issues that came up during the State of the Union address, as well as other topics.
Manchin explained in an interview with the Washington Examiner: "They wanted to talk about the environment. They want to talk about coal, the jobs possibilities, what's going to happen. And they want to talk about guns. As you know, that's usually a big thing. But now the front burner was about the shutdown, how we're going to handle it and border security."
"So, we were talking about all those things, and we were 20 minutes or so into our conversation, and I see on my cellphone 'Unknown' pops up. Well I know the way it pops up, it's either going to be someone from Schumer's office or McConnell's office calling about something," he continued. "Or maybe the White House. You never know."
Turns out it was the White House, specifically, President Trump's assistant.
Manchin told the kids he needed to put them on pause for a few minutes, and all Stout and Williams saw from their vantage point, they explained, was a black screen. A few moments later, Manchin came back and told the students he had "a little surprise" for them.
Manchin put the phone on speaker, and the president started to chat with the kids.
Stout said: "Not everybody in the room you know is politically for Trump, but in that moment that didn't matter, just that fact that you're going to listen to the president talk to a small group of kids. Everyone had a smile on their face and was just so surprised and couldn't really say anything. We just listened to him and smiled."
Manchin said Trump was very charming with the kids: "He says, 'I love West Virginia. And I know they like Joe, and they like me, and we're gonna work together.' And he told them to stay involved, and he appreciates they were very much interested and excited that they were involved in the process and wanted to know what's going on."
The president also mentioned the reason he called Manchin was to thank him for applauding when few Democrats did during bipartisan moments in the State of the Union speech.
Manchin said of his personal conversation with the president: "I said, 'Mr. President, I've always stated that I know my state well and that it's something that my state and I represent the people of my state, I'm going to stand up and be respectful. When I thought the things that you were saying resonated with something I might believe in but definitely my state supports, I'm gonna be there and show the courtesy and manners that I think that I was raised with."
The former governor stood several times and applauded during the president's speech, in particular on energy projects and banning late-term abortions.
Energy's a big thing that Trump talked about, said Manchin. "He didn't talk about coal, but he talked about energy in general," he said. "We're an energy state, and we want to continue to make sure we provide the energy the country needs."
Manchin said the most "controversial" things he applauded were the personal issues on life. He "could ... feel the daggers" when he stood up for Trump's remarks calling for legislation to curb third-trimester abortions. "Late-term abortions, my goodness. It would have to be a dire medical situation," he said, adding that what Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has supported and what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done with late-term abortion bills in their states is "just totally unconscionable" to him.
Manchin said he was a little struck by the photo on Reuters.com taken of him standing during the speech with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sitting behind him, giving him the stink eye: "My goodness. Well, I could hear the boos a little bit, you know. I didn't know if the boos were for the president or for me standing; I wasn't sure. But I could sure feel the daggers."
Stout said one of the things he really respected about Manchin during the president's speech was how he conducted himself: "That's one thing I really enjoyed watching was he didn't agree with everything that the president said, but things he agreed with, he did stand up. Unlike the other Democrats who didn't, which it's just being partisan over things that can be good for every state."
Stout is heading to West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, this fall for a degree in criminology, and ultimately, law school. He registered as an independent when he turned 18 late last fall.
Williams is also registered as an independent. He is heading to Fairmont State University for aerospace engineering.
Principal Cutlip said too many people want to put a political spin on the moment; she insisted they are missing the larger point: "Honest to goodness, it really was just we were at the right place at the right time. And I think we were just completely honored that the president did take time out of his day to say hi to the kids. It was just an honor."
Webster Springs, a charming little town located on the Elk River, is a sparsely populated county seat (under 800 people) in a sparsely populated county (under 9,000) where half of the geography is taken up by the majestic beauty and dense forests of the Monongahela National Forest and the Holly River State Park.
Webster County has been a reliable Democratic vote since the state was formed in 1860 — data compiled by Dave Leip at Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections shows that the streak has been broken only three times since then. Webster narrowly went for Richard Nixon in 1972, for Mitt Romney in 2012 (it had gone for Barack Obama in 2008) and for Donald Trump in 2016.
There is no evidence a sitting U.S. president has ever visited the county.
Its economy has relied on coal for over 100 years. As it has declined and devastated the area economically in the past 10 years, shale, the distribution of natural gas through the Mountain Valley Pipeline and tourism have somewhat helped stabilize the slide.
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