Bernie Sanders has branded Donald Trump a "pathological liar" who condones violence, a day after Chicago saw violent clashes between Trump supporters and protesters.
Trump was forced to call off a rally in Chicago on 11 March, after clashes erupted between protesters and supporters of his campaign. Several hundred demonstrators packed an arena at the University of Illinois hours before Trump was due to appear there, with some of them getting into physical confrontations with backers of the Republican front-runner. The melee broke out as the cancellation was announced to the crowd, with campaigners yelling, "We stopped Trump." Clashes were also reported outside the arena as police scrambled to restore order.
At a press conference in Chicago on Saturday (12 March) morning, the Democratic candidate for president said the protests were sparked by the Republican frontrunner, who he accused of fueling racial enmity for political gain, by means of his divisive rhetoric.
"What the Trump campaign has been about is insulting Mexicans in a very crude way, it's been about insulting African Americans," he said.
In a stern statement issued later in the day, Sanders reiterated his sentiment, refuting Trump's assertions that the protests were orchestrated by his camp. "As is the case virtually every day, Donald Trump is showing the American people that he is a pathological liar. Obviously, while I appreciate that we had supporters at Trump's rally in Chicago, our campaign did not organize the protests.
"What caused the protests at Trump's rally is a candidate that has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities, and his birther attacks against the legitimacy of President Obama."
Sanders said that the billionaire presidential candidate had advocated violence by his own example. "What caused the violence at Trump's rally is a campaign whose words and actions have encouraged it on the part of his supporters. He recently said of a protester, 'I want to punch him in the face.' Another time Trump yearned for the old days when the protester would have been punched and "carried out on a stretcher.' Then just a few days ago a female reporter apparently was assaulted by his campaign manager.
"When that is what the Trump campaign is doing, we should not be surprised that there is a response. What Donald Trump must do now is stop provoking violence and make it clear to his supporters that people who attend his rallies or protest should not be assaulted, should not be punched, should not be kicked. In America people have a right to attend a political rally without fear of physical harm."
"What do you think that says to his supporters?" Sanders asked. "The issue now is that Donald Trump has got to be loud and clear and tell his supporters that violence at rallies is not what America is about, and to end it."
The senator further defended the Democratic protesters saying: "What our supporters are doing is responding to a candidate who has in fact in many ways encouraged violence," he said.
Speaking to a crowd in Vandalia, Ohio, Trump attributed the blame for the violent clashes in Chicago, in part, to provocation by the Democratic protestors. Trump said his supporters "were so nice" and "caused no problem". "They were taunted, they were harassed by these other people," he said, "some represented Bernie, our communist friend."
In St Louis, Missouri, where violence also broke outside at a Trump rally on Friday (11 March), senator Hillary Clinton branded the clashes as "wrong and dangerous.".
Addressing 100 volunteers she said: "The ugly, divisive rhetoric we are hearing from Donald Trump and the encouragement of violence and aggression is wrong, and it's dangerous. If you play with matches, you're going to start a fire you can't control. That's not leadership. That's political arson. The test of leadership and citizenship is the opposite. If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. And if you see a bully, stand up to him."
Trump in turn was dismissive of Clinton and her supporters, claiming their presence at the Chicago rally was barely evident. "Say what you will about Bernie," he said of the senator's supporters, "at least they have fervor."
The Republican turned to Twitter to defend his position and their supporters. "It is Clinton and Sanders people who disrupted my rally in Chicago - and then they say I must talk to my people. Phony politicians!"
The Chicago Police Department said the decision to cancel the rally was made by the Trump team and was made against the advice of the police. However, the Trump team claimed that the Chicago police had said the rally should be cancelled.