Greenville, N.C. — Never before in U.S. history has a former president returned to the campaign trail to claim that his election loss was fraudulent.
But in his informal reemergence on the political scene before the GOP faithful at the North Carolina GOP convention in Greenville, Donald Trump did just that, insisting — falsely — that the 2020 race was stolen and corrupt.
“The evidence is too voluminous to even mention,” Trump said at one point. Tellingly, he never mentioned it, choosing instead to insist that dead people had voted, that Facebook had encouraged get out the vote drives in liberal enclaves, and that “Indians” were paid to vote (ostensibly referring to Native Americans) — none of it supported by fact. “It was a third world election like we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Trump applauded audits taking place in various states and scoffed at the notion that all of this was subversive and problematic for society. “I’m not the one trying to undermine democracy,” Trump said as the crowd stood on their feet. “I’m the one trying to save it.”
The speech was not all about questioning the election’s legitimacy. In fact, that portion came nearly an hour into it. Prior to that, Trump bragged about his administration’s role in developing the coronavirus vaccine and attacked the Biden administration’s foreign policy, energy and immigration policies.
“If we had not come up with a vaccine, you would have had 1917 Spanish flu numbers,” Trump said of the virus’ death toll and Operation Warp Speed.
The former president attacked infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become a boogeyman for Trump and the right, as “not a great doctor, but a hell of a promoter.”
“Fauci said at the beginning, ‘no masks.’ Remember that? Then he became a radical masker. Get three, four. Get a pair of goggles, ideally. Wear them for another five or six years,” Trump said to laughter from the audience.
He was met with a standing ovation when he demanded China pay $10 trillion in “reparations” for its role in the coronavirus pandemic and again when he called for the banning of critical race theory in schools, the culture wars issue du jour for the GOP.
He recounted his favorite moments in office, re-litigated his long-standing grievances and was unwilling to let go of the slights he believed marred his time in office — at one point recounting how the press covered his gingerly walk down a ramp after delivering a speech at West Point. At times, it gave off the vibe of an entertainer in the twilight of his career, playing the hits for a Vegas crowd. And, for good measure, the evening featured a relatively new addition to the Trump rally playlist: “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from “Titanic” and the classic hit of Vegas-staple Celine Dion.
The crowd loved it.
Trump, who narrowly won North Carolina in the past two presidential elections, expressed optimism for the Republican Party in 2022 and beyond.
In a surprise announcement, he gave his “complete and total” endorsement to Rep. Ted Budd in the state’s Senate primary. The news — which Trump shared with Budd just 15 minutes before taking the stage — was made after Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, a native of Wilmington, N.C., publicly ruled out a run for the seat.
“Now you may have heard a rumor that I have been considering possibly running for Senate,” said Trump, who said she is instead focusing on her role as a mother. “I am saying no for now, not no forever.”
The speech served as a quasi kick off to the will-he-or-won’t-he stage of speculation around whether Trump will give a White House run another go. He has privately told confidantes that he is inclined to do so and recently put out a statement premised on the idea that he wouldn’t just run again, but win. Saturday was Trump’s first public speech since appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February. Since then, the ex-president has made remarks behind closed doors at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida and has done interviews with friendly, right-leaning shows.
“He just can’t quit it and get away from it,” said one former campaign adviser. “He probably sees this as a legacy defining thing, and I know it’s superficial to say but he doesn’t want to go out as a loser.”
Trump is planning to cross the country making a series of speeches this summer. So far, he’s expected to appear in Ohio, to support former White House aide turned congressional candidate Max Miller; in Alabama to support Republican Senate candidate Rep. Mo Brooks; in Georgia, where he remains embittered about the outcome of the 2020 election results; and his home state of Florida. He’s also scheduled to speak at CPAC Texas this July in Dallas.
“It’s really about getting back out to carry a positive message for America forward and start to contrast America First agenda versus a Biden short term results,” said a senior adviser to Trump. “Florida and Ohio are on the list to get out quickly and do rallies but it won’t stop there — he’s ready to re-engage in the political arena.”
An appearance via jumbotron at a “free speech” event next week hosted by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has openly speculated that Trump will be reinstated to the White House in August, is also likely, a spokesperson said. Trump himself has been absorbed with the Arizona audit that he has mused will result in his reinstatement. But one senior adviser said the former president does not seriously believe he will be returning to the White House through non-electoral means.
While publicly, allies of Trump have been supportive of him returning to the trail, behind the scenes there has been hand-wringing over how Trump’s obsession with re-litigating the 2020 elections could affect the midterms.
A person close to Trump noted some top Republican donors who have listened to Trump speak have been disappointed with the former president’s messaging.
“They came to hear something different and talk about the future and not the past,” the person said, of one recent event in Mar-a-Lago. “They didn’t hear anything new from Trump, more grievances and nothing new.”