LAKE CRYSTAL, MINN. – As the weekday breakfast crowd downs coffee at American Legion Post 294, Carla Dahm sips from her own mug, a mug with a message.
It reads: "Trump Won — Suck It Up, Buttercup."
Dahm, 45, has been serving coffee and meals for the past four years at this Legion post about 15 miles west of Mankato. She has two sons in the Marines. And she loves Donald Trump.
"I'm loud and I'm proud of it," she said with a big grin. "He's got a pair, doesn't he? And he's gonna use 'em."
Even as controversy surrounds Trump and polls show his approval rating near historic lows, many voters here in Blue Earth County are unwavering in their support. What drew them to Trump in the first place — and still holds them close — is his blunt, brash, take-no-prisoners attitude.
"I think he'll get this country straightened out," said Don Marben, 74, owner, editor and publisher of the weekly Lake Crystal Tribune. "He calls a spade a spade."
It's a sentiment echoing across this southern Minnesota county, which overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race but flipped narrowly for Trump in November. While Hillary Clinton won Mankato, a college town and regional center of 40,000 along the banks of the Minnesota River, Trump carried the small towns and rural countryside with his "Make America Great Again" pledge to win the county by 3 percentage points.
And by "great again," they mean they still trust Trump to show the world American strength, secure the nation's borders and put career politicians in their place.
That feeling among county voters reflects a base of support that's still evident in national polls, as well as an April Star Tribune poll, which found that 87 percent of Trump voters approved of his performance so far.
Though Trump's first months in office have been turbulent, his most fervent supporters in Blue Earth County are digging in and swinging back.
Congressional investigations into the Russia affair? Fake news.
Health care? If the politicians get out of the way, Trump will fix it.
His feud with the media? With the exception of Fox News, Trump supporters here see journalists as pests the president should ignore — or enemies standing in his way.
Even the recent uproar surrounding the Senate testimony of former FBI Director James Comey hasn't shaken true Trump believers. Comey called Trump a liar under oath and said he believes the president fired him to prevent a deeper FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia.
"My view of Trump is not ever gonna change," said Brenda Sanderson, 37, owner of Sisterhood Inspirations Boutique, the women's fashion store she opened two years ago on Main Street in Lake Crystal. "He obviously is our leader right now, so he has a hand in everything.
"I love Donald Trump."
'A wake-up call'
LuAnn Hultgren began yearning for order when riots broke out in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer there shot and killed an 18-year-old black man in 2014.
"Things seemed to get out of control in our country" after Ferguson, she said, an event that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. "I thought Trump would be someone who could get things back on track.
"I think he's someone who can get a tight rein on the country," said Hultgren, 62, a retired Mankato printer.
John Lever, a retired Mankato entrepreneur who's been a housing developer, pawnshop owner and gun club operator, thinks along those same lines, but hopes Trump will flex his muscles beyond America's borders.
"We got people to bomb," said Lever, 68. "Take out North Korea, rattle the saber with China."
Lever describes himself as "cautiously optimistic" about the Trump presidency, but worries that the investigation into alleged ties with Russia has derailed his administration.
"I think he's behind schedule — this damn Russia thing," Lever said. "I want to see this presidency succeed. Keep the bad guys out, build the damn fence."
Elsie Abrahamson and Beret Ouren, both students at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, cast their first-ever presidential votes for Trump. His opposition to abortion rights was a key factor in the decision.
Abrahamson, 19, doesn't agree with Trump on every issue, but because of her religious views, "I couldn't condone Hillary," she said, yanking weeds from the landscaped entrance to a residence hall on a recent morning.
So far, she added, "I think Trump is holding pretty much to what I thought he would."
Ouren, 22, said she believes the media have paid too much attention to Comey's Senate testimony and his version of the investigation into the administration's alleged ties to Russia, "blowing [it] way out of proportion rather than seeing some of the good things [Trump] is doing."
Many of her peers don't keep up on politics, Abrahamson said, so if they disagree with Trump's policies, it's their own fault.
"Maybe this will serve as kind of a wake-up call to pay attention," she said.
Vets for Trump
As the veterans of Post 294 walk through the doorway for their breakfast, they're hailed with shouts and jokes from other regulars. Brothers Milt and Rich Abraham take a ribbing when a visitor mistakes one for the other, setting off a debate about which brother is better-looking.
"Most of the veterans are for Trump," said Rich Abraham, 82, a retired state trooper who served in the Korean War.
He said Obama offended some vets when he skipped some of the Legion's national conventions, though he did attend several during his eight years in office, including the one held in Minneapolis in 2011.
Trump, meanwhile, has expressed strong support for the military, despite his use of five draft deferments to bypass service in the Vietnam War.
"I give him credit for that," Abraham said. "He's not a veteran, but he really backs our military."
Trump won praise from many supporters in April, when, in response to a Syrian gas attack on civilians there, he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base.
"He said, 'We're not going to stand for this,' " said Sanderson, the Lake Crystal boutique owner. "I like that he's brash. I think he's a little arrogant, but I think a president has to have some arrogance. … You have to be bold."
Sanderson said she also sees Trump keeping his promise to get tough on immigration.
"I think he's one of the rare presidents who came in and held to his agenda and didn't start changing," she said.
Other supporters are more wary.
Some, like Marc Barnes, a 46-year-old state government employee from Rapidan, Minn., who saw Trump as the best of two unappealing candidates, said he believes he "is capable of doing great things if the media would back off." But the president's learning curve is steep, Barnes added, eating a sandwich at the Dam Store, a local landmark on the Blue Earth River where his wife, Jenny, bakes the renowned pies.
"The ultimate job in this country is president of the United States," Barnes said. "He got it, and I don't think he realized all it involved.
"He's mishandled a lot of things," Barnes added. "But he's not a politician. That's why he got voted in."
Dudley Sandland, 64, a recently retired exterminator, said he appreciates some of what Trump has done, "like when he went to NATO and said, 'Pay your share.' "
Poking through bags of mulch outside a Shopko store in Mankato, Sandland said he is paying less attention to Washington, D.C., these days.
"You have to pay attention to the things you can control, and that's local," he said. "If the world is gonna be nuclearized, it's gonna happen."
But David Treanor of Mapleton, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, worries that Trump's criticism of NATO allies threatens the U.S.-European partnership created in the wake of World War II.
"I think it's a good organization. I think we've got to be together," said Treanor, taking a break from work on a veterans' memorial that's going up next to VFW Post 5338 in downtown Mapleton.
Still, when Trump tweets, people listen, sometimes even adopting the same language the president uses to attack his political foes.
"It's a witch hunt," Treanor said of the probes into Trump's campaign and his firing of Comey, repeating a phrase that the president himself has repeatedly tweeted. "People voted, and I think they wanted a change."
Jackalopes and Putin
In a low, gravelly voice that boomed through the Dam Store during a recent lunch hour, Kenneth Mosser put his support for Trump in simple terms.
"I'm not a Dumbocrat!" he growled.
Mosser, 76, has been a truck driver, carpenter, bricklayer and welder. He said he spent several years as an industrial spy and jackalope builder for George Herter, the eccentric Minnesota legend who published a popular mail-order catalog out of Waseca during the middle decades of the last century.
An Army veteran, Mosser said he doesn't fear Russia.
"They're not going to do anything. They're in bad shape," he said. "But you know Putin will shoot his mouth off and sound tough."
North Korea, a budding nuclear power, is a different story.
"You can't let North Korea go," Mosser said. "Trump will handle it. In this world, you can't buckle under."
Trump, he added, "is doing great. And you have to remember, he's just getting started."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402