Donald Trump reprised his election grievances and baseless claims of fraud as he returned to the rally stage on Saturday for 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,” the former president told a crowd of thousands at Ohio’s Lorain County Fairgrounds, near Cleveland, where he began fulfilling 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 representative Anthony Gonzalez for his congressional seat.
Mr Gonzalez was one of 10 GOP House members who voted to impeach Mr Trump for his role in inciting the deadly January 6 insurrection at the Capitol building. Mr Trump has vowed to back those who run against them.
While he praised Mr Miller as an “incredible patriot” and a “great guy” who “loves the people of Ohio”, Mr Trump spent much of the rally fixating on the 2020 election. He still insists he won the poll, 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.
Mr 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 Mr 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 representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Republican from Georgia known for her incendiary rhetoric, asked the crowd who their president was, they boomed loudly, “Trump!”
“President Trump is my president, too,” she said.
The event had many of the trappings of the rallies Mr Trump held as a candidate and as president.
There was the eclectic playlist, the same stage design, and many familiar volunteers. Mr Trump even reprised his performance of The Snake, a song he has used as an allegory for illegal immigration. The crowd also 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, where pro-Trump signs dotted residents’ lawns. On street corners, vendors sold “Trump 2024” flags and other merchandise as supporters arrived.
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 mid-term candidate and will travel to the southern border in the coming week to protest Mr Biden’s immigration policies.
The rally came as Mr 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 on Thursday it could soon face criminal charges stemming from a wide-ranging investigation into the former president’s business dealings.
Although Mr Trump remains a deeply polarising 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.
Mr Trump has said he is committed to helping Republicans regain control of Congress in next year’s mid-term 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 Mr Trump’s impeachment have drawn primary challengers. And Mr Trump has offered to support anyone who steps forward to challenge the remaining candidate, representative John Katko of New York, according to a report on syracuse.com.