At 8:25 p.m. Wednesday, just as a Democratic House majority made Donald J. Trump the third president ever to be impeached, for abuse of power, he was at a rally here in Michigan, riffing about the “space force,” nuclear submarines, “Crooked” Hillary Clinton and more — delivering his standard campaign fare to convince the country, and perhaps himself, that nothing had changed.
“By the way, it doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached,” Trump said upon taking the stage. “The country is doing better than ever before. We did nothing wrong. We did nothing wrong and we have tremendous support in the Republican Party like we’ve never had before.”
At 8:43, as the House passed a second article of impeachment, for obstruction of justice, Trump was mocking Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for his “unpronounceable name” and comparing him to cartoon character “Alfred E. Neuman.”
He exulted when he got the impeachment tallies: “We didn’t lose one Republican vote.” The crowd cheered.
Yet after touting his administration’s accomplishments, mocking Clinton and other past and current rivals, and generally avoiding the subject of impeachment, Trump’s focus — and mood — shifted over the course of his two-hour and one-minute increasingly improvisational and disjointed speech, as he gave way occasionally to anger over what he called an “illegal and unconstitutional” impeachment.
“Through their depraved actions today, crazy Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats have branded themselves with an eternal mark of shame,” Trump said. “And it really is — it’s a disgrace, Democrats. Lawmakers do not believe you have the right to select your own president.”
Planned weeks ago, the “Merry Christmas rally” wasn’t some savvy programming decision by the reality TV star turned politician to divert attention from the ignominy of impeachment. Michigan, a state that he won in 2016 by just 10,700 votes, is once again critical to his reelection bid.
But the confluence of congressional and campaign schedules delivered a split-screen moment: a deeply polarizing president, on the ground in a swing state, responding almost immediately on television to the House impeachment vote, trying to turn his rebuke into a badge of honor and to convince his most ardent supporters that he — and they — are victims of deep injustice.
“The do-nothing Democrats — and they are do-nothing — all they want to do is focus on this,” Trump said. “What they could be doing are declaring their deep hatred and disdain for the American voter. This lawless partisan witch hunt is a political suicide march for the Democrat Party.”
“They’re the ones who should be impeached, every one of them,” Trump said. He predicted, “Americans will show up by the tens of millions next year to vote Pelosi the hell out of office.”
At one point, he complained about Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who recently criticized him on television, and recalled that not long ago she’d thanked him for honoring her late husband, the popular former Rep. John Dingell, who served a record 59 years in Congress.
“I gave them the A-plus treatment,” Trump said, and Dingell told him that her husband “would be looking down, happy.” He paused, then said, “Maybe he’s looking up,” as if from hell. “I don’t know, but let’s assume he’s looking down.” The comment drew murmurs of surprise and rare boos.
Later, Dingell responded in a tweet: “Mr. President, let’s set politics aside. My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
Trump’s arguments on his own behalf, honed in hundreds of vitriolic tweets and previewed Tuesday in a furiously worded six-page letter to Pelosi, are likely to intensify the emotions of partisans and, more importantly, help crystallize for swing voters the ever-looming question of whether he deserves four more years in the White House.
“Hate is usually a greater driver for voters than like,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “That’s good for Democratic intensity, but I think the impeachment hearings have backfired [against them]. Mainstream voters just don’t like the process.”
Although a weekend Fox News poll showed 50% of Americans support Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, surveys in critical swing states such as Michigan have shown support for impeachment below the national average. Trump boasted last week that impeachment proceedings have been “very good for me politically.”
Prior to leaving for Michigan, Trump spent the day out of sight at the White House, venting on Twitter about the impeachment debate (he sent 45 tweets before noon). He did not address reporters on the South Lawn, as he often does, before departing .
Ahead of the evening vote at the Capitol, thousands of red-hatted Michiganders withstood the 22-degree cold in a line snaking around the Kellogg Arena.
Some wore black T-shirts emblazoned with three words: “Read the Transcript,” the president’s refrain to falsely suggest that the official notes of his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, the spark for the impeachment process, absolve him of any wrongdoing. In the call, he asked for “a favor” — that Ukraine investigate his political rival, even as he’d frozen military aid to the nation as it faces Russian aggression.
“I’m disillusioned and I’m sad that they did this to him — he’s a good man, he didn’t need this,” said Connie Graff, a supporter from Kalamazoo who arrived four hours early for the rally, which she described as her “Christmas present.”
Several people expressed enthusiasm for the president’s letter to Pelosi, a torrent of grievances and hostility. Cindy Ludwig, a supporter from Southfield, said of Democrats: “They have no right to do this to him. He’s doing a great job and he needs to continue on. There is no proof.”
Ludwig and her husband, Paul, echoed a Republican talking point used repeatedly during the day-long House debate on impeachment: that Democrats have been determined to pursue impeachment for three years. They pointed to statements by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib and other Democrats who expressed support for impeaching Trump long before his backstage dealings with Ukraine prompted an actual inquiry.
Early in his rally, before the House vote was in, Trump told the crowd, “They’ve been trying to impeach me since I won.”
Analysts say Trump’s venting rage may prove cathartic for him and his most ardent fans, but isn’t necessarily helpful if the goal is to broaden his base for 2020.
“There’s something confrontational about Trump’s rallies that he loves, and it produces the strongest reaction from his base,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. “But if I were going into Michigan, I’d choose to tell the economic story, not to fixate on the personal grievances he’s going to have on that day.”
“He can have as many rallies as he wants,” Hart continued. “Leaving aside the organizational benefits, he’s just reinforcing all the things the voters in the middle don’t like about him.”
Trump rallies, like most of his tweets, have always been primarily about revving up his base. Battle Creek sits in Calhoun County in southwestern Michigan. It’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and its average household income is lower. President Obama won the county by a percentage point and a half in 2012, four years before Trump won it by 12 percentage points.
Two Michigan transplants, Mike and Karen Miller, now living in Virginia, protested against the president at the Capitol on Wednesday. Mike Miller said Trump’s rally in their former state, while the House voted to impeach him, “presented a split-screen with one side, truth, and on the other, nothing but lies and still more lies.”
Still, Karen Miller said she feared that a vote for impeachment could hurt moderate Democrats like Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin. Her family back home had been inundated by attack ads against the former CIA analyst.
“It really comes down to: The economy looks good, cars are being sold, near everybody is employed,” she said of Trump’s chances of winning Michigan and the 2020 presidential election.
Her husband disagreed. “It doesn’t help the president to be impeached,” he said. “He’s going to be wearing that scarlet ‘I,’ and he can’t erase that stigma.”
Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said she is optimistic that the state’s swing voters will ultimately reward Slotkin and other lawmakers for doing what they believe to be right, regardless of the politics.
In an interview, she said that Michigan Democrats have shifted from a strategy that relied heavily on urban voters around Detroit and are now working to persuade voters across the state. Impeachment, she believes, won’t determine who carries the state in 2020.
“We’ve got our own Donald Trump turnout strategy, which is about the 2020 election,” Barnes said, pointing to 2018 statewide results where Democrats ran much better than they had two years earlier. “We’re making inroads. That’s about us taking the time to traverse the state and have conversations with folks all over.”
Times staff writer Molly O’Toole in Washington contributed to this report.