WELLINGTON, Ohio — Former President Donald Trump reprised his election grievances and baseless claims of fraud as he returned to the rally stage Saturday, holding his first campaign-style event since leaving the White House.
"This was the scam of the century and this was the crime of the century," Trump told a crowd of thousands at Ohio's Lorain County Fairgrounds, not far from Cleveland, where he began making good on his pledge to exact revenge on those who voted for his historic second impeachment.
The event was held to support Max Miller, a former White House aide who is challenging Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez for his congressional seat. Gonzalez was one of 10 GOP House members who voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol building. Trump has vowed to back those who run against them.
And while he praised Miller as an "incredible patriot" and a "great guy" who "loves the people of Ohio," Trump spent much of the rally fixating on the 2020 election, which he insists he won, even though top state and local election officials, his own attorney general and numerous judges, including some he appointed, have said there is no evidence of the mass voter fraud he alleges took place.
Trump has been consumed with ongoing efforts to overturn the results in various states, and has even publicly entertained the idea that he could somehow be reinstated into office, even though no legal or constitutional basis for doing so exists.
"The 2020 presidential election was rigged," he told the crowd, which at one point broke into a "Trump won!" chant. "We won that election in a landslide." In reality, President Joe Biden's victory was thoroughly validated by the officials who reported finding no systemic fraud.
Saturday's focus on the election lies of 2020 began even before Trump arrived. The pre-show included a PowerPoint-style presentation by a man who claims an algorithm was used to manipulate the election results. And Mike Lindell, the My Pillow founder-turned-conspiracy theorist who has spent millions trying to prove the election was stolen, was hailed as a hero by some in the crowd, who chanted his name and jockeyed for photos as he milled around.
When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Republican from Georgia known for her incendiary rhetoric, asked the crowd who their president is, they boomed loudly, "Trump!"
"President Trump is my president, too" she said.
The event had many of the trappings of the rallies Trump held as a candidate and as president. There was the eclectic playlist, the same stage design, and many familiar volunteers. Trump even reprised his performance of "The Snake," a song he has used as an allegory for illegal immigration, and the crowd chanted "Lock her up" at the mention of Hillary Clinton, the Democrat he defeated in 2016 But gone was the grand entrance using Air Force Once as a backdrop, and the pomp that surrounds any sitting president.
Still, traffic through the afternoon was backed up from the fairgrounds into town, where pro-Trump signs dotted residents' lawns. On street corners, vendors sold "Trump 2024" flags and other merchandise as supporters arrived.
"I just love him," said Karen Barnett, 60, who drove from Dayton, Ohio and arrived at the fairgrounds around 3 a.m. after hopping in her car with "no sleep, nothing" when she heard the line was growing.
The rally, held five months after Trump left office under a cloud of violence, marks the beginning of a new, more public phase of his post-presidency. After spending much of his time behind closed doors building a political operation and fuming about the last election, Trump is planning a flurry of public appearances in the coming weeks. He'll hold another rally in Florida over the July Fourth weekend unattached to a midterm candidate and will travel to the southern border in the coming week to protest Biden's immigration policies.
The rally came as Trump, who has continued to tease the possibility that he will mount a comeback run for the White House in 2024, faces immediate legal jeopardy. Manhattan prosecutors informed his company Thursday that it could soon face criminal charges stemming from a wide-ranging investigation into the former president's business dealings. The New York Times, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported that charges could be filed against the Trump Organization within days. Trump has denounced the investigations as nothing more than a "witch hunt" aimed at damaging him politically.
Although Trump remains a deeply polarizing figure, he is extremely popular with the Republican base, and candidates have flocked to his homes in Florida and New Jersey seeking his endorsement as he has tried to position himself as his party's kingmaker.
Trump has said he is committed to helping Republicans regain control of Congress in next year's midterm elections. But his efforts to support — and recruit — candidates to challenge incumbent Republicans who have crossed him put him at odds with other Republican leaders who have been trying to unify the party after a brutal year in which they lost control of the White House and failed to gain control of either chamber of Congress.
So far, nine of the 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump's impeachment have drawn primary challengers. And Trump has offered to support anyone who steps forward to challenge the remaining candidate, Rep. John Katko of New York, syracuse.com reported.
Gonzalez, a former college and professional football player, has stood by his impeachment vote in the face of fierce criticism from his party's conservative wing, including his censure by the Ohio Republican Party. Miller, in opening remarks, labeled him an "anti-Trumper" who had betrayed Trump, the Republican Party and his district with his vote.
Trump's rallies have been instrumental to his politics since he launched his 2016 campaign. The former reality star is energized by performing in front of his audiences and often test-drives new material and talking points to see how they resonate with the crowd. His political operation also uses the events to collect critical voter contact information from attendees and as fundraising tools.
And they have spawned a group of hardcore fans who traveled the country, attending dozens of rallies, often camping out overnight to snag prime spots. Some of those supporters began lining up outside the venue early in the week as they reunited for the event.
Others were attending their first rallies, having felt compelled to turn out in the election's aftermath.
They included Chris Laskowski, 55, who lives in Medina, Ohio. "We miss him," she said. "I think they robbed him of the election and he's still our president."
She wasn't alone.
"He'll be back in August," predicted Peggy Johnson, 60, who had traveled from Michigan to attend what she said was her seventh Trump rally. "He actually is president now." ___
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report from Washington.