A day after being suspended from Facebook for a total of two years, former President Donald Trump returned to the political arena Saturday night, furthering election lies and returning to a cynical and dark view of America.
"The 2020 presidential election, that election, the 2020 presidential election, was by far the most corrupt election in the history of our country," Trump baselessly claimed in a speech before the North Carolina Republican Party, continuing his false grievance about an election he lost.
He said Democrats "used COVID" and "used mail-in ballots to steal an election." He called it a "third-world election, like we've never seen before." He derided it as the "crime of the century" and claimed that the "country is being destroyed, perhaps by people who have no right to destroy it."
And then, as he continued to try and undermine the democratic process with lies about an election that his former top cybersecurity official called the "most secure" in history, he did what he often does with a vulnerability — he tried to flip and embrace it.
"I'm not the one trying to undermine democracy," Trump said, "I am the one who's trying to save it, please remember that."
That received his biggest applause of the night.
If there's one thing Trump has never been able to deal with is losing. He has been able to spin his way out of bringing companies into bankruptcies and bad tabloid headlines about failed marriages — and these continued lies about the election are what he sees as his off-ramp.
Get ready to hear more about it. This speech kicks off what's likely to be a spree of summer campaigning. It was Trump's first public address since his speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.
Relitigating the election with baseless allegations comes as no surprise. It's been a focus of Trump's since leaving office. That was evident in an NPR analysis of nearly two months of his statements.
Trump also reverted to a dark vision of America and Democratic rule.
"As we gather tonight, our country is being destroyed before our very own eyes," the former president said in a speech before the North Carolina Republican Party Convention. "Crime is exploding. Police departments are being ripped apart and defunded. Can you believe that?"
Trump warned of "vicious" and "violent" people who "hate our country" and that "drugs" are "pouring in." If that sounds familiar, it's because it hits many of the touchstones of Trump's culture-war, grievance-based politics — the kind that he used dating back to first campaign announcement off in 2015.
In an orchestrated move, Trump also endorsed Rep. Ted Budd for the open U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. And he did so after former Rep. Mark Walker won a straw poll by a substantial margin of the crowd in attendance for who they wanted to run in the race.
Shortly before Trump asked Budd to come up and speak, his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, a North Carolina native, announced she would not run. She and husband Eric Trump recently moved to Florida.
"We're going to take back our country, and we're going to take it back at a level that is very, very good for our country," Trump said, "and it's good for our citizens, because we can't allow bad things to happen to our country."
He added that "bad things are happening, perhaps like never before."
Before his speech, Trump boasted that the room would be "packed, all records broken." In that same emailed statement, he also furthered falsehoods about voting in the 2020 election that he lost, and in response to Facebook's announcement that he is banned until at least January 2023, he continued the lie that the election was "rigged."
Trump's account was suspended and continues to be, Facebook said, because of the way he used the platform leading up to and during the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump called the ruling "an insult" to the people who voted for him.
Hitting the road
Trump's choice of venue to kick off his campaigning is something of a soft launch. Doing it this way doesn't have the pressure of creating a scene and crowd that a traditional rally would have.
"That Trump is doing a state party convention makes sense," Heye said. "It's a controlled environment and doesn't risk the empty seats he could have at a rally — no more football stadiums."
But Trump will soon be trying to hold those large rallies again. He's expected to hit the road with two rallies reportedly in the next month, with more to come later this summer in an effort to boost both allies and challengers to Republican incumbents who have spoken out against him.
Some of those include Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who Trump thought should have done more to help him win the state he lost in the presidential election, and Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted for Trump's impeachment.
These events are ostensibly about others, but in the past, they have seemed to always come back to Trump. Feeling constrained by the office and Washington, these rallies became almost therapeutic for the 45th president. He would feed off the friendly crowds, reenergize and dig in with harder-line culture-war messages.
The most important person in the party
Since leaving office and being booted from mainstream social media platforms, Trump has struggled to control the political narrative.
He ditched a blog-like feature on his website for statements, and a hyped new social media platform that has yet to materialize. To get buzz, he has been relegated to emailing statements — and hoping for them to be shared on mainstream platforms.
And yet Trump remains the most influential figure and most powerful force in the Republican Party, despite an eager crop of candidates waiting in the wings.
Trump remains very popular with Republican voters, and his positions are essentially GOP leaders' positions. That's despite party figures like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell initially criticizing Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
McCarthy has since cozied up to Trump, betting that riding the former president's coattails is the best way to take back the House — and for him to become speaker. McConnell rallied other Republicans in blocking a 9/11-style independent commission to more fully investigate the Jan. 6 riot.
That was singing from Trump's hymnal.
"Republicans in the House and Senate should not approve the Democrat trap of the January 6 Commission," Trump said in a statement May 18, adding, "Republicans must get much tougher and much smarter, and stop being used by the Radical Left. Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!"
Positioned to win the GOP nomination again
Though Trump brought many voters into the fold, there are plenty of reasons why Republicans might think twice about nominating him to be their standard-bearer again. Those include:
- He lacks a discipline that many Republicans privately — and some publicly — believe made it harder for them to pass policies conservatives care about;
- Some Republicans have grown tired of the chaos he brings — even if they agree with him on policy;
- He would be 78 years old if he were to win in 2024, the same age President Biden is now;
- His favorability ratings with independents are abysmally low; and
- Only one other president has won a second term after losing a reelection bid, Grover Cleveland, more than a century ago.
"I'll be really curious to see how many candidates want to campaign with him in a general election," said Alex Conant, a founding partner at the consulting firm Firehouse Strategies and former communication director for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign.
But when it comes to a Republican presidential primary, Trump is better-positioned than anyone else in the party. Everyone knows who he is — and name recognition is critically important — and Republicans love him.
In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 85% of Republicans said they wanted candidates who agree with Trump. Two-thirds said they want Trump to run again and be the party's nominee in 2024.
"I think a lot of GOP voters are excited about the next generation of candidates," Conant said, "but if Trump ran in 2024, he'd be hard to beat in a primary."
Putting the 2024 "field on ice"
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigned for governor with an ad telling his child, playing with paper bricks, to "build the wall." And since winning that race, he has arguably been angling for a presidential run.
Both DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another possible 2024 candidate, have gained prominence in conservative circles for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as they've defiantly resisted mask mandates and kept businesses open. Noem is also to speak before the North Carolina GOP on Saturday.
Others, like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Trump United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, have gotten a lot of attention as potential candidates.
Scott delivered the response to Biden's address to a joint session of Congress. And Haley, who has had an up-and-down relationship with Trump, launched a group that's supposed to advocate for conservative policies, but it looks more like a site for a Haley campaign-in-waiting.
And, of course, there's former Vice President Mike Pence. He, too, appears ready to run if given the chance. He has now made appearances in Texas for a state fundraiser and in the early presidential primary states of South Carolina and New Hampshire.
He made news Thursday in New Hampshire when he said he doesn't think he and Trump will "ever see eye to eye" about Jan. 6. Pence was targeted by the pro-Trump mob that day, and Trump tweeted during the insurrection that "Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."
Pence's comments splitting with Trump about the insurrection made headlines, but the bulk of his New Hampshire speech was laudatory toward the former president and what he said they accomplished. It was an attempt to thread a very fine needle to help his standing as a potential serious candidate.
Trump, though, doesn't appear ready to pass the baton, or rather the "mantle of anger," as he once put it during his 2016 run.
"I am looking at it very seriously," Trump told ally and conservative media personality Sean Hannity in April about whether he will run again. "Beyond seriously. From a legal standpoint, I don't want to really talk about it yet. It's a little too soon."
On Friday, responding to the Facebook news, Trump gave perhaps the clearest hint yet that he may be intending to run. Threatening not to have dinner anymore with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Trump began his statement with this phrase:
"Next time I'm in the White House... ."
It's a good bet Trump will likely tease out his final decision until the very last minute, effectively putting the other candidates in a deep freeze.
"His being out there keeps the rest of the field on ice," Heye said. "They'll go to New Hampshire and Iowa, etc., but they can't make a ton of hires, and they absolutely cannot announce a campaign. The first one to do so will take all sorts of incoming from Trump."
That will irritate other potential candidates. While they try to stay in Trump's good graces, there will be the inevitable grousing from people close to those candidates in anonymous quotes in stories about the presidential field, perhaps griping "sooner rather than later," Heye said, "but I'm not sure if it matters. Trump got into the 2016 race relatively late, had no real campaign, and still won."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former President Donald Trump is diving headfirst into state-level politics. He spoke in front of the North Carolina Republican Party on Saturday evening. The event kicked off what is likely to be a spree of summer campaigning. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us this morning to talk about it. Hey, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: What was Trump's purpose in being there in North Carolina over the weekend?
MONTANARO: Well, first, this was Trump, you know, getting back into his comfort zone. He blasted social media platforms like Facebook that have banned him. He went after the National Institutes of Health's Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's become something of a lightning rod among conservatives. He furthered his repeated lies about the election he lost in 2020, and he returned to a cynical and dark view of America. Take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: As we gather tonight, our country is being destroyed before our very own eyes. Crime is exploding. Police departments are being ripped apart and defunded. Can you believe that?
MONTANARO: And, of course, that's pretty exaggerated and misleading, sounds a whole lot like the dark warnings of the country he was painting even from when he first announced he was running for president six years ago. And, you know, even as he was undermining the democratic process with lies about the election, he did what he often does with a vulnerability. He tried to flip it and embrace it. Listen to what he did.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy. I'm the one that's trying to save it. Please remember that.
MONTANARO: That, by the way, got his biggest applause of the night. So you can see what he's trying to do there.
MARTIN: So what do you make of the venue here for Trump?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, this was something of a soft launch. You know, it was a controlled environment. Having the party set this up takes away a lot of the pressure from him and his people of trying to create a scene and a crowd like on those traditional - like from those traditional rallies that he's done. But we do expect to see him doing those rallies soon. He's reportedly holding a couple of those within the month. We're expecting to see him in key states to boost allies and also to take down Republicans who've crossed him. Think about people like Congressman Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio - he voted for Trump's impeachment - and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. And so, you know, we're going to see Trump weighing in even as far down as secretary of state races.
MARTIN: Right. I mean, not to mention Liz Cheney - right? - who spoke out against the president and supported his impeachment, and that's put her in political peril. I mean, how do you explain Trump's position in the Republican Party right now?
MONTANARO: Yeah, and Cheney has been a huge focus of his if you've followed what he's said since leaving office. You know, look, he remains the most influential figure. He's the most powerful force in the Republican Party. He wanted to make that very clear Saturday night that he's the man who calls the shots in the party. There's an open Senate seat, for example, for North Carolina. The state party held a straw poll of people in attendance for who they wanted to see run. And former Congressman Mark Walker won that pretty handily. But then Trump minutes later comes onto the stage and endorses someone else. He endorsed Congressman Ted Budd. And that was minutes after he called his daughter Lara up onto the stage, who then announced she would not be running. And she's a North Carolina native and had been thinking about it seriously. You know, when it comes to 2024, there's a crop of younger candidates eager to run, but without Trump announcing what he's going to do yet, that's really put that field on ice.
MARTIN: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, thank you.
MONTANARO: You're welcome, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "HOURGLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.