Twelve-year-old JJ Holmes has been enamored with the 2016 presidential election.
By Election Day, the boy would encounter two of the most polarizing figures in this campaign season – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and President Barack Obama – and his experiences with them would be vastly different.
For months, JJ, who has a severe case of cerebral palsy, has been sitting on his knees at his home in Longwood, Florida, using his nose to type searches on his iPad for “Mary Poppins” plays and Trump events, his mother said. Throughout the election, she said, he had been itching to go to a rally – to express his disdain for Trump, who came under fire last year for mocking a reporter with a disability.
“I wanted to go because Donald J. Trump made fun of disabled people,” JJ said in a video statement Monday to The Washington Post, using his computer vocalization device.
On Saturday, JJ got his wish – his mother, Alison Holmes, agreed to take him to a Trump rally in Tampa.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Holmes woke up her son, asking him whether he still wanted to go. She said she had told him what it would mean – a 3 a.m. wake-up call, a two-hour drive from their home in Longwood to Tampa, long lines and pushy protesters and, possibly, the boot.
JJ made a pouty face – his Trump imitation – as his signal that he was ready to roll, his mother said.
She said JJ had preprogrammed chants, such as “Dump Trump” and “Trump mocks the disabled,” into his computer vocalization device. Once he was inside the arena, he pushed a button to say his piece, his mother said.
“It wasn’t that loud,” she said about his chants, adding, “Trump was laughing about how his supporters drown out JJ. So my daughters and I started chanting.”
She said the crowd around them turned rowdy.
Trump supporters across the arena joined in – then Trump reportedly spoke out from the stage.
“Oh, we have a Hillary Clinton person. Are they paying that person $1,500?” Trump said, according to Fox News. “Get him out, please. Get him out.”
The crowd started chanting “USA! USA! USA!”
“I must tell you, the Bernie Sanders protesters had much more enthusiasm and spirit than this one,” Trump added. “The problem with these Hillary protesters is my people make all the noise. … You can’t even hear the person.”
At the same time, Alison Holmes said, Trump supporters near them started pushing her son’s wheelchair, and calling her a “child abuser” and telling others to “grab her p–y.” The boy and his family were escorted from the arena, she said.
“I thought we may get kicked out,” she said. “I didn’t think they’d start shoving his wheelchair.”
Some people also criticized Holmes for taking her son to the rally, accusing her of using him to protest. “He’s not some puppet I wheeled in there,” Holmes said. “This was him – this was all him.”
Trump’s media representatives did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment.
Outside, a reporter who covered the rally heard that the boy hoped to one day meet Obama, Holmes said; the reporter called Valentina Pereda, Florida press secretary for the Hillary Clinton campaign, who used to be the White House deputy director for Hispanic media.
The idea? See how close they could get JJ to the rope line at a Democratic event Sunday in Kissimmee, Florida, where Obama was speaking in support of Clinton. Maybe he would shake JJ’s hand on his way down the line.
Pereda wrote on Facebook about the moment the reporter told her JJ’s story.
“I freeze: first in disbelief and, next, feeling utterly helpless,” she wrote. “What the hell could I do to make this child even slightly forget that experience? I’m a nobody!
“I tell the reporter to share my number with JJ’s mother and that the only thing I can do is escort them into President Obama’s rally the following day. No chance for VIP treatment and much less to meet the President.”
On Sunday, Pereda said she devised a plan, with help from a friend who she said travels with the president.
“I point him to where in the VIP area JJ is sitting with the hope that when POTUS would work the ropeline, he’d somehow remember JJ’s story and spend two extra seconds with him,” she wrote. “And with that, I was satisfied with [what] was to be accomplished. A handshake.”
Then it happened.
“Shortly after, colleagues begin to frantically text and call me to tell me my friend from the WH was looking for me,” Pereda wrote.
“I sprint about half a mile back into the stadium and push my way through angry Secret Service agents and thick crowds. I finally spot my friend who, once again, asks me to point out where the boy is sitting, which I do. Then – out of the blue – I tell him, ‘well, how about I wheel him out of the VIP area and bring him around?’ ”
“Wow, this is really happening,” Pereda wrote.
“At that moment, JJ’s mom tells him he’s going to meet the President. The rest is indescribable. . . JJ jumps out of his seat and erupts into cheer . . . his smile almost bursting out of his face. His body overcome by light, when just the day before it almost succumbed to hate.”
JJ’s mother said he told the president he loved him, thanked him for the handshake and asked him, “Can you vote?”
“He wanted to make sure he could vote for Hillary Clinton,” she said.
JJ said Monday that meeting Obama was the highlight of his weekend, but when his mother asked him, “Are you happy that you went to the Trump rally?” he shouted: “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
“Okay,” she said, laughing. “OK.”
“He was over the moon,” his mother said. “He really feels that he made a stand.”