President Trump officially kicked off his reelection campaign Tuesday night with a rally that at times resembled a time warp, reprising the grievances, slogans and villains that brought him to victory the first time around, but offering no new proposals for a second term.
He extensively derided Hillary Clinton, his old rival, but barely mentioned the Democrats running in 2020, making two brief references to Joe Biden, who leads polls of the Democratic race, and one to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The crowd of about 20,000 in Orlando, Fla., gamely recited the old battle cries: “Lock her up,” “Build the wall” and “CNN sucks.”
And they applauded as he made clear that his campaign would once again be based on the sense that he is under constant attack, and that the assault extends to his supporters, who offered loud cheers when he reminded them that Clinton once labeled them “deplorables.”
“They went after my family, my business, my finances, my employees, almost everyone that I’ve ever known or worked with, but they are really going after you,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, not about us. It’s about you.”
Speaking for about an hour and 20 minutes, Trump dwelt extensively on what he called a Democratic “witch hunt” — the special counsel investigation that he said was as much about destroying his followers’ way of life as it was about his presidency.
He touted the strong economy but did not dwell on it. He made a number of false or misleading statements, including taking credit for a law to improve veterans’ healthcare that was passed in 2014 under President Obama and asserting that the nation’s air and water are the “cleanest they’ve ever been by far” despite government data indicating that air quality has worsened.
He talked extensively about Democrats obstructing his immigration plans and other pieces of his first-term agenda, but revamped a key promise — saying now that he would complete 400 miles of new border wall by the end of this term, where once he promised a full wall. And, in notable contrast to the many 2016 slogans that he repeated, he left out the old chant about Mexico paying for it.
Throughout the speech, Trump sought to make the 2020 election a referendum on how Democrats reacted to 2016 — which he called a “defining moment in American history” — with attempts to investigate him and, increasingly, calls to impeach him.
“They tried to erase … your legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election probably in the history of our country,” he said. “And they wanted to deny you the future that you demanded and the future that America deserves.”
Trump cast Democrats as socialists bent on open borders and criminality, and the media as willing accomplices, determined to deny him credit and reverse the progress by which he said he has once again made America great.
The members of his family who spoke before him, his sons Eric and Don Jr. and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, amplified that theme, denouncing a media that they claimed has stacked the deck against Trump.
“Have you ever seen a group of people so upset that the president of their country was not in fact colluding with the enemy?” Donald Trump Jr. said. “That’s what we’re up against.”
With a Democratic field of more than 20 people, Trump lacks a single opponent to attack consistently. Instead, many of his efforts were more abstract, using Clinton as a proxy for the Democratic establishment.
“Our political enemies look down with hatred on our values,” Trump said. “They called us deplorables. That was a mistake. That was a big mistake.”
The speech came four years and two days after he came down that “beautiful escalator” in Trump Tower in New York to formally announce his first run for the White House.
The tourists and passersby paid to applaud the New York real estate mogul last time have been replaced by passionate Trump fans wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats and millions more voters around the country who have embraced the president’s disruptive policies and norm-busting style.
But as he gears up for the 2020 race, Trump has returned again and again to immigration, the issue which provided much of the emotional fuel for his 2016 victory and which he believes is the most important to his base.
He tweeted provocatively about immigration in the run-up to the rally, announcing an as-yet-undefined mass deportation plan.
In Tuesday’s rally, he blamed Democrats for immigration laws that he called “a disgrace” and cited with particular disgust California’s attempts to give health benefits to some of those in the country illegally.
Hours before the rally, fans in “Space Force” T-shirts, dresses festooned with Republican elephants and Trump flags draped around their bodies spilled out around the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic basketball team.
Large sections of the streets around the arena were blocked off for crowd control and to allow vendors selling T-shirts displaying Trump’s head on an action hero’s body and MAGA hats in all colors.
Inside the arena, the familiar rally sound track — “Macho Man,” “We Are the Champions” and “Freebird” — blared as Vice President Mike Pence stood to acknowledge the crowd.
Digital scoreboards were lit with blue signs inviting supporters to text the campaign, a crucial part of a massive organizing effort that began before Trump took the oath of office. The campaign said it spent the last week holding 1,000 organizing events around the country, training 16,000 volunteers.
Among the spectators were two Republican senators who had run against Trump in 2016, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, a sign of how much more backing Trump will get this time around from mainstream Republicans.
Trump’s Twitter account reaches more than 61 million followers and it’s now joined by a sophisticated digital media operation that is outpacing Democrats. Unlike last time, his campaign has a professional structure with staff across the country and targeted advertising already underway.
Trump has never ceased talking about the escalator ride and the 2016 campaign, using his unexpected victory as proof that the elite political class and media continue to underestimate him and his supporters’ strength.
“Since the very first day I walked through the doors of the White House, I have never forgotten who sent me there: You did,” he declared.