GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Presenting himself as both vindicated and vindictive, a fired-up President Donald Trump on Thursday turned the findings of the special counsel’s Russia investigation into a political weapon at a boisterous Michigan rally that was part victory lap, part 2020 campaign push.
With Robert Mueller’s investigation largely over, Trump unleashed a fervent diatribe from the stage about the inquiry, which he deemed “the greatest hoax in the history of our country.” He warned that those behind the probe “would be held accountable,” aired his grievances about the “unfair” media coverage of the investigation and seethed that the matter that shadowed his White House was an attempt “to tear up the fabric of our great democracy.”
“After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is dead,” said Trump. “This was nothing more than a sinister effort to undermine our historic election victory and to sabotage the will of the American people”
Basking in his supporters’ adulation at the Grand Rapids rally, his first political event since Mueller found no evidence no evidence that his campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election, Trump said the investigation was an attempt to “overturn the will of the people” and that many “innocent people” were swept up in the probe.
The packed crowd, many of whom began to line up the night before, delivered a deafening roar for the president while unleashing its vitriol as he bashed the media and said of the special counsel: “Robert Mueller was a god to Democrats. He was a god to them. Now they don’t like him much now.”
The president linked the report with the myriad investigations launched by House Democrats and tried to make the case that, after Mueller’s findings, further probes are partisan overreach.
“The Democrats now have to decide if they will continue to defraud the American public with this ridiculous bulls–t,” said Trump, who urged the opposing party to instead work with him on issues like infrastructure repair and drug pricing.
Trump stood before a familiar backdrop: a giant American flag, signs reading “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and, of course, “Make America Great Again.” Though the aftermath of the probe was at the forefront of his speech, Trump also ticked off what he portrayed as his administration’s accomplishments, including a booming stock market and victories over the Islamic State terror group.
He also framed the Democrats’ presidential candidates as “radical,” and he slammed the Green New Deal, an ambitious, wide-ranging plan to combat climate change, as a “dangerous” reinvention of American society. But he spent relatively little time on his administration’s renewed push to overturn the Affordable Care Act, other than to declare that the “Republican Party will be the party of health care” while not presenting many details as to what the new GOP plan might be.
His eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, provided a high-energy warm-up act and, in particular, savaged family foe, Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels, the porn star who alleged an affair with the president, and was arrested this week on charges of extortion.
“For this week only, MAGA stands for Michael Avenatti got arrested,” Trump Jr. boomed, taunting the once-rumored presidential candidate. “Avenatti 2020 became Avenatti 20-25. Maybe 50.”
But he also turned serious and thanked the Trump supporters for staying loyal to the president.
“This week’s vindication of my father, of me, of our family, it’s not just our vindication, it’s your vindication,” Trump Jr. said. “You own that with us. Because you stuck by us. You knew it was nonsense. You knew my father was fighting for all of you.”
Mueller’s report stretches more than 300 pages, according to a Justice Department official. But Barr’s four-page summary released Sunday has been seized upon by the Republican president and his allies as a weapon to use against Democrats, the so-called Deep State and the media.
While Trump’s base has long been suspicious of Mueller, the president’s team believes independents and moderate Democrats who backed him in the last election but have since soured may return to the fold if convinced he was unfairly targeted. Trump used the moment to heighten his attacks on the media, which many Trump supporters believe unjustly fanned the flames of the special counsel’s probe in an effort to bring down the president.
Loyal supporters started lining up in front of the Van Andel Arena on Wednesday evening, with some camping out in tents and sleeping bags overnight. By mid-afternoon, a crowd of thousands, many in red “Make America Great Again” hats, snaked for blocks around downtown Grand Rapids, just across the river from The Gerald Ford Presidential Museum.
Trump’s sojourn to the Midwest is expected to be the first of many.
His campaign is seeking to hold three key states that he swung from blue to red in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — but that may prove difficult to hold after midterm elections showed rising Democratic energy. Still, advisers believe that Trump’s core supporters remain enthusiastic heading into 2020.
With an eye on local matters, Trump announced he would reverse his administration’s own budget plan, which had proposed a 90 percent spending cut for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Trump said he would fully fund the cleanup program, offering the $300 million the program has typically received.
Even before Thursday’s barnburner, Grand Rapids loomed large in Trump lore.
On the eve of the 2016 election, Trump’s breakneck final blitz of rallies was meant to come to an end in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he was to be joined by family members to salute the traditional swing state where he had claimed his first electoral win, in its primary, months earlier.
But just days before, the Trump campaign tacked on one more rally in the western Michigan city after seeing data that showed a surge for their candidate. Internal polls showed late movement in a series of Rust Belt states on which Democrats were banking but Trump’s team felt could be stolen.
The Grand Rapids rally didn’t start end after midnight, bleeding into Election Day. Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes — his margins of victory in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were similarly small — and those close to the president have long pointed to the rally as a reason why.
Several longtime aides made the trip to Michigan to soak up the nostalgia and take in the show, including White House senior advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former campaign aide David Bossie.
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire and Colvin at http://twitter.com@colvinj