Former President Donald Trump returned to campaign mode with a vengeance Saturday night, vowing at a rally in Ohio that Republicans would take back Congress, bemoaning his loss in last November’s election and retaliating against a GOP congressman who voted to impeach him.
Calling the event “the very first rally of the 2022 election,” Trump predicted next year’s elections would result in “giant Republican majorities” in both chambers of Congress.
“We’re going to take back the House, and we’re going to take back the Senate,” he promised the crowd at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, about a half-hour southwest of Cleveland.
“We have no choice,” he added.
The event marked Trump’s return to the kind of mass rallies that fueled his White House campaigns. Since he left office in January, Trump’s public appearances have been limited to a handful of speeches before conservative and Republican groups
Trump’s political action committee, the Save America PAC, said the Ohio rally would be the first of many appearances in support of candidates and causes that further his agenda and the accomplishments of his administration. A second rally already is planned for July 3 in Sarasota, Florida.
Political analysts said the events are designed to give Trump a platform to reassert himself as the leader of the Republican Party, promote his conspiracy theories about last November’s election – and just as important to Trump and his bruised ego – settle old scores.
“This is just the kickoff of the Donald Trump grievance tour,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron.
Trump, however, insisted, “I’m trying to save American democracy.”‘
Banned from Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms that he used to communicate with his supporters, Trump reveled in the enthusiasm of the boisterous crowd, which was estimated to be in the thousands.
“Are we having a good time?” Trump asked.
The crowd roared back right on cue.
In tone and style, the event was reminiscent of the rallies Trump held across the country during his two campaigns for the White House. He stepped onto the stage as a loudspeaker blared Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” – a favorite on his playlist during last year’s campaign – and tossed red “Make America Great Again” hats into the crowd.
In his 91-minute remarks, Trump lashed out at Democratic foes like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, ridiculed the “fake news” media and leveled unfounded accusations about his loss to Joe Biden in last November’s presidential election. Trump said he was “ashamed” of the U.S. Supreme Court for failing to back his unsupported claims of election fraud.
Though he made no announcement about his own plans, Trump hinted that he might make another run for the White House in 2024. Claiming falsely that he has already won the presidency twice, he proclaimed, “it’s possible we’ll have to win it a third time.”
Though Trump lost the presidency to Biden last November, he carried Ohio by eight percentage points. But political scientist Justin Buchler saw no particular relevance to the fact that Trump chose Ohio – historically a swing state in presidential elections – as the site of his first rally since leaving the White House.
What was more important, at least to Trump, was that he appeared in Lorain County, which he won by three percentage points last November and where was surrounded by people who are loyal to him.
“He is not campaigning outside of his comfort zone,” said Buchler, an associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “He’s not going to areas where he’s going to be surrounded by a hostile crowd. He is going to go to places where he can be surrounded by people who are his devoted followers.”
Supporters began arriving at the Lorain County Fairgrounds early Saturday afternoon, donning American flags and selling T-shirts that said, “Trump won.” A cover band blared through the grounds as people lined up at food trucks and sipped water to stave off the heat.
Leslie Dodd drove to Wellington from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, with her son to attend the rally. She said she hoped to hear good news from Trump and believes the GOP should follow his lead as candidates gear up for the 2022 and 2024 elections.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s still my president,” Dodd said.
Edward X. Young of Brick Township, New Jersey, a 61-year-old horror movie actor, director and make-up artist, drove from his home Friday night and arrived at the Lorain County site 11 hours later.
“This is my 51st Trump rally,” Young said. The last one he said he attended was the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, where people broke into the U.S. Capitol. Young said he did not go into the Capitol.
“I’m very excited about this one. This is the return,” said Young, who likened the atmosphere to a rock ‘n’ roll concert.
Sandra Price, 57, of Walled Lake, Michigan, was hoping Trump would say he has not given up on the 2020 election.
“I want to re-elect the president,” said Price, who was attending her 19th Trump rally.
Price said she’s upset with GOP members who are not true to conservative principles. “Democrats stab me in the chest,” she said. “Republicans stab me in the back.”
Trump used his remarks not only to attack Democrats, he also took aim at members of his own party, including Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a northeastern Ohio congressman who was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that left five people dead.
The Ohio Republican Party’s governing board voted in May to censure Gonzalez and called on him to resign. Weeks earlier, Trump hit back at Gonzalez by throwing his support to Max Miller, who is running against Gonzalez in next year’s GOP primary. Miller worked for Trump on the campaign trail and in the White House, and Saturday’s rally was held in part to promote Miller’s candidacy.
Miller, who joined Trump on stage, branded Gonzalez as “a sold-out, RINO foot soldier” and said his vote to impeach Trump was “a betrayal he can never turn back from and that he should have to answer to, day after day after day.”
Trump called Gonzalez “a grandstanding RINO” and “a sell-out, a fake Republican and a disgrace to your state.” He praised Miller as “a trusted aide of mine” and said he had played a role in the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea.
Trump insisted that Gonzalez’s impeachment vote is “not the reason I’m doing this.” But, he added, “I just thought it was a character trait that was not so good.”
Gonzalez, who represents Ohio’s 16th congressional district, is “in big trouble” politically, Cohen said.
“His vote for impeachment – albeit one that was extremely courageous and one that was done without taking politics into account – is one that has hurt him with his own political base,” Cohen said. “And it could cost him his seat.”
Trump’s Ohio rally came just four days before he is scheduled to visit the U.S.-Mexico border on June 30 with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
As he has done in the past, Trump repeatedly attack Biden’s border policies during his remarks, arguing that his successor had “deliberately and systematically” dismantled border security and allowed a flood of illegal immigrants into the country. He claimed Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday “for one simple reason: Because I announced I was going.”
Though he’s no longer in office and is not a candidate for public office – at least not officially – Trump’s rally was part of an overall strategy to keep him in the public eye, Cohen said.
“He’s not going away,” he said. “He’s not leaving the political stage.”
Trump’s rally showed he has no intentions of quitting politics anytime soon.
“Our movement is far from over,” he said. “In fact, our fight has only just begun.”
Contributing: Haley BeMiller of the Columbus Dispatch and James Mackinnon of the Akron Beacon Journal.