By Doina Chiacu and Bob Chiarito
WASHINGTON/BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (Reuters) – Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump refused to take responsibility on Sunday for clashes at his campaign events and criticized protesters who have dogged his rallies and forced him to cancel one in Chicago last week.
When a protester interrupted his speech on Sunday at an airport hangar in Bloomington, Illinois, minutes after it began, Trump derided him as a “disrupter” and told the cheering crowd: “Don’t worry about it – I don’t hear their voice.”
“Our rallies are so big and we have so many people, I never hear their voices. I only hear our people’s voices saying: ‘There they are, there they are,'” the billionaire businessman said as the audience roared approval and some 2,000 protesters waited outside.
Two later rallies on Sunday in Ohio and Florida passed without disruption.
Trump is trying to cement his lead over his remaining Republican rivals – U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Governor John Kasich – in five states that hold presidential nominating contests on Tuesday for Republicans and Democrats: Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri.
The four Republicans and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are vying to run in the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.
Trump used a round of Sunday morning television appearances to rebut strong criticism from Republican rivals and Democrats that he was encouraging discord with divisive language disparaging Muslims and illegal immigrants.
“I don’t accept responsibility. I do not condone violence in any shape,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The 69-year-old New York real estate mogul defended his supporters and said he was considering helping pay the legal fees of a 78-year-old white man who punched a young black man at a Trump rally in North Carolina last week. The man, Trump said, “got carried away.”
“I’ve actually instructed my people to look into it,” he said.
The man, John McGraw, was charged with assault and later with communicating a threat after he was seen on video saying he enjoyed hitting “that loudmouth” and threatening next time “to kill him.”
Trump had earlier promised to help cover the legal fees of supporters involved in clashes at his rallies.
On Friday night, thousands of protesters, many of them telling journalists they were Sanders or Clinton supporters, showed up at the Chicago rally, forcing Trump to cancel the event and casting a shadow over his weekend rallies.
Trump drew condemnation from his rivals.
“We are now seeing images on television that we haven’t seen in this country since the 1960s, images that make us look like a Third World country,” Rubio, 44, said at a campaign event in The Villages, a retirement community in Florida. “Do we really want to live in a country where Americans hate each other?”
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner and former U.S. secretary of state, said Trump was “incredibly bigoted” and pitting Americans against each other.
“He is trafficking in hate and fear,” she told CNN. “He is playing to our worst instincts.”
Trump said tension at his rallies came from people being “sick and tired” of American leadership that has cost them jobs through trade deals, failed to defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and treated military veterans poorly.
“The people are angry at that – they’re not angry about something I’m saying,” he said. “I’m just the messenger.”
Trump has harnessed the discontent of white, working-class voters who blame trade deals for costing them jobs. He has proposed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, disparaged some Mexican immigrants as criminals and advocated a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
A few dozen protesters, mostly young, stood in the rain outside a later Trump rally on Sunday in West Chester, Ohio, near Cincinnati.
Alexander Shelton, a 26-year-old student and activist, wore a white Muslim prayer robe with a picture of the civil rights leader Malcolm X painted on front.
“We have to stand up against white supremacy,” he said. “Trump stands for that.”
Michael McKinney, 47, a self-employed credit-card processor from Ohio, came to the rally with his wife and young daughter, and blamed the protesters for the violence.
“If the protesters don’t act civilly, people on the edge are going to snap,” he said.
“We are not a Third World nation. We don’t stand for killing each other because we disagree or even harm each other,” he said. “This isn’t the United States I grew up in.”
(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikana and Patrick Rucker in Washington, Steve Holland in The Villages, Fla., Jim Oliphant in Boca Raton, Fla., and Joe Wessels in West Chester, Ohio; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Bloomington, Illinois, March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young