DALLAS — A year ago Thursday, Donald Trump and his supermodel wife rode down the escalator in the atrium of his pink-marbled Manhattan skyscraper and made an announcement that would dramatically change the American political playbook: "Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States, and we are going to make our country great again."
One year later, at a rally in the well-known honky-tonk Gilley's Club, Trump reflected on his unexpected rise from long-shot contender whom few Republican leaders took seriously to the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee. The people who gathered for his visit to Dallas underscored how his 12-month ascent has sharply polarized the nation. Outside, hundreds of protesters denounced the mogul. They wore white shirts, waved American flags and pumped their fists in the air, shouting: “Stop Hate. Dump Trump.”
Inside, backers who waited hours to see him cheered him heartily as he took the stage to the tune of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," flashed two thumbs up and then immediately started complaining about the small venue, which has a capacity of 3,800, although Trump pegged the crowd size at 4,500. Several in the crowd wore T-shirts promoting gun rights, and one man wore a shirt stating: "It's Trump for president, y'all." One young man dressed as "Lady Liberty" in a wedding gown draped with an American flag.
As he entered the honky-tonk, Trump said he saw "thousands and thousands" of his fans stuck outside the venue, and he wanted to "wade in and hug them and kiss them," but was held back by the Secret Service — just one of many restrictions that come with being a likely presidential nominee. Trump lamented that the new gig also comes with a higher level of scrutiny from the press.
"You know, it's funny: I didn't love the press during the primaries — but now, it's like brutal," Trump said. "It's so biased. It's slanted. It's so one-sided. And all I can say is the people out there are really smart because they understand what's going on. They understand what's going on."
Trump rattled through his campaign promises: Save the 2nd Amendment, strengthen the southern border and build a wall, make education "great" and end Common Core, terminate Obamacare and replace it with something "great," improve the nation's airports so they don't look like they belong in a third-world country, and stop the flow of immigrants who have "hate in their hearts" and come from countries with high rates of terrorism. At one point, Trump mentioned President Obama, and a man in the crowd yelled out that the president is Muslim, which he is not.
Trump frequently told the crowd that he loved them and asked if they were having fun. And he even mentioned the honky-tonk's mechanical bulls.
"Where's that horse? I want to go on the horse," said Trump, who turned 70 on Tuesday. "Hey, do you want to hit the papers tomorrow? Let's get that horse. I'll ride that horse. The problem is: Even if I make it, they'll say I fell off the horse and it was terrible."
The crowd laughed and applauded. Jane Kappes, who recently retired from accounting, never thought Trump would make it this far.
“When he first announced, I laughed," Kappes said before the rally, smoking a Marlboro Light pulled from her fanny pack. "But then he just hit the nail on the head. He said exactly what we’re all thinking.”
Kappes grew up in Dallas and has seen her city change year after year with the arrival of more and more immigrants. She feels like English is now the second or third language.
Tom Stockdell, a 61-year-old from Waxahachie, also never thought he would see Trump make it this far. Stockdell originally backed Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who won the Texas Republican primary, but now supports Trump, although he wants to make sure the mogul shows the country his "true nature."
"It's a sign of the times," Stockdell said of Trump becoming the presumptive nominee.
At the rally, Trump explained how he got to this point, heavily focusing on his game-changing win Indiana, where Cruz dropped out of the race and Trump locked up the nomination. Trump credited his Indiana win to the endorsement of former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Trump said that he has received so many endorsements from "champions" that he's thinking about trying something new at the Republican convention in Cleveland in July. Instead of having boring politicians talk and put everyone to sleep, he wants to have a "winners' night" and feature all of the "great people" who have endorsed him.
The "Bobby Knight story" is especially interesting, Trump told his crowd, and it started more than a year and a half ago, when the legendary college basketball coach called "out of the blue" and urged Trump to run for president. Trump took Knight's number and promised to call if he decided to run. He put the paper with the number on it under a "huge pile of papers."
"Like three feet of papers — almost as tall as my tax return, okay? But not quite," Trump said. "Oh, by the way, I'm lowering everybody's taxes more than anybody else. More than anybody else."
Trump then went off on a riff about Clinton and "her little plans," his wins in southern states, the quality of various polls, and the media not acknowledging the high number of Republican rivals he faced. He paused as someone in the crowd appeared to pass out.
"Are you okay? We want to make sure you're okay, because these are my people!" Trump said. "I love my people!"
Trump praised the local NBC affiliate and grumbled that he gets nothing out of cable networks making major profits because of his buzzy candidacy. After nearly 10 minutes Trump circled back to the Knight story. Trump said that as he headed into the Indiana primary and remembered to call Knight back as he had promised.
"I'm telling you, this is a true story, this is from God," Trump said. "I go over, and I lift up this massive — it must be like three, four thousand pages of stuff, old stuff — and I lift it up, and there's his number, sitting on a little piece of paper like this. Bobby Knight. And I call Bobby Knight. And I said: 'Coach.' And he said: 'I've been waiting for you to call. What took you so long?' Unbelievable. Right? I love that story."
Trump said that his candidacy has helped to dramatically expand the party, despite pundits who "hate me more than anything in their lives," and continued to say he had hit a ceiling when he had not. Trump said that beating Clinton will be "tougher" because the press is against him. He then came up with a merchandise idea: cowboy hats that say "Make America Great Again."
Continuing on to some foreign policy points, Trump said that as president he would be open to speaking with dictators, including the "wild child in North Korea," Kim Jong Un. And he shook his head at those who want him to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has praised him. He attacked the media for misunderstanding his stances on NATO (he has questioned its usefulness) and nuclear weapons in Japan (he previously suggested this should happen, although he now says he never did). Trump also said that because he never studied foreign policy, it's easier for him to come up with "common sense" solutions.
Throughout the evening, Trump was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, at one point saying with irritation in his voice: "I am trying to make a nice point here." Each time, he ordered their removal.
Outside the rally, beyond metal police barricades, hundreds of activists circled Dallas attorney Domingo Garcia. Wearing tinted Ray Bans and a white linen shirt, Domingo shouted to the crowd: "What do we want?" They shouted back: "Dump the Trump!"
Garcia had helped organize a fleet of buses to transport residents from six locations across the city to the rally. He estimated their numbers at 1,000 to 2,000. He said organizers worked closely with police to prevent conflict, arranging for the buses to leave around 8 p.m., so as to limit contact with Trump supporters filing out of the rally.
As the protesters marched into place before the rally, 14-year-old Andrea Hernandez walked beside her mother, a 37-year-old Hispanic woman who cleans houses in Dallas and arrived in the United States when she was a teen. If Trump is elected, Andrea said, she fears her mother might be deported. Her 8-year-old sister, Angela, nodded.
"If he wins for president, he might take my mom away,” Andrea said. They filed into the crowed, trailing behind a giant piñata with a mop of yellow hair, made in the likeness of Trump.
Inside the rally, as Trump's remarks approached the one-hour mark, he finished with a promise.
"We're going to start winning again," Trump said. "We don't win any more. We lose. We only lose. We're going to start winning again. We're going to start winning again. We're going to win at everything. We're going to win every which way. We're going to start winning again, and you're going to going to be very proud of your country again."
Trump thanked Texas and Dallas. As "Deep in the Heart of Texas" once again played, and Secret Service agents moved into place as the presumptive nominee waved to the crowd.
Sullivan and Thompson reported from Dallas. Johnson reported from Washington.