CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — It was just like the old days.
The pre-rally playlist included “Memory” from the Broadway musical “Cats.” A local woman who was once a contestant on “The Apprentice” lovingly referred to the crowd of several thousand as “a great looking group of deplorables.” Campaign staffers handed out signs that read “Women for Trump” and “Make America Great Again.” And President Trump gave a rambling speech in which he boasted about his “amazing progress,” blamed Democrats for the problems he is having, reflected on his crowd size, promised sweeping changes and expressed his great love for this state that didn't pick him during the 2016 caucuses.
Trump wore a red tie, pumped his fist, called his supporters “American patriots,” contradicted himself and basked in the glow of supporters who still love him, despite what the polls and the pundits say. The crowd cheered nearly every sentence that he spoke, booed the media and demanded that Hillary Clinton be thrown into prison. At least five times, they broke into a chant of “USA! USA! USA!” Afterward, street vendors sold T-shirts containing profanity, and some of Trump's supporters got into shouting matches with protesters, at one point chanting: “Your team lost! Your team lost! Your team lost!”
“We're not even campaigning and look at this crowd,” Trump said about halfway through his 70-minute speech.
But he was campaigning. This was a campaign rally organized by his campaign staff in a swing state that traditionally hosts the nation's first presidential nominating contest. Wednesday night quickly felt like 2016 all over again.
Trump took the stage on time — which, in fairness, is a change from 2016 — to Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the U.S.A.”
“It is great to be back in the incredible, beautiful, great state of Eye-oo-wa,” Trump said, as a young woman in a black tank top standing in the stands behind him snapped a selfie of herself and then tapped away on her phone. “Home of the greatest wrestlers in the world.”
Trump congratulated Republican Karen Handel for winning the special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District and Republican Ralph Norman for winning in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District — and he embraced these two wins as what he sees as evidence that the country agrees with what he's doing.
Mere minutes into his remarks, Trump was interrupted by a whistle, the sound that often announces the end of recess or the start of a swim meet. Trump completed his thought — telling the crowd to remember House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot at baseball practice last week — and looked up into the stands, where a protester was blowing a whistle and tearing up a campaign sign.
“Never fails,” he said with a chuckle. “Never fails.”
As security escorted the protester and those with him out of the arena, the crowd booed and then chanted “USA! USA! USA!” and then booed again. Someone in the crowd shouted to the president: “We love you!” Another bellowed: “We got your back, President Trump!”
Trump resumed talking about Scalise, and he thanked the Capitol Police officers who killed the shooter.
“They were being hit by rifle fire. They only had handguns, and they were able to get him,” the president said, forming his fingers into the shape of a gun. “It was an amazing show of talent and bravery.”
He soon added: “Hopefully, our nation emerges from this ordeal — it was an ordeal, terrible — more unified and more determined than ever before, and I can see it, and we are indeed more unified, in our own way, than ever before,” Trump said.
Over the next hour, Trump said that he would lay out the next steps in “our incredible movement to make America great again,” but he kept veering off on tangents and reflecting on the past. Here are some of the things he covered:
- Trump first reflected on his electoral victory — and claimed that jobs are now “just about the best they've ever been,” that he has created “tremendous wealth” in the country, that “enthusiasm and spirit” are at all-time highs, and that America is now defending its border instead of the borders of other countries and rebuilding itself instead of rebuilding other countries.
- Trump declared that after 16 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan — spending trillions of dollars and costing thousands of “young, beautiful lives” — the region is in “far worse shape.” Trump explained that he “took over a very, very difficult hand, but we're going to get it fixed” because that's why he was elected. (Trump did not mention that he gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to send several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan.)
- He brought up Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea in January 2016, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and died this week. “Look at Otto, beautiful Otto. Went over there a healthy, wonderful boy, and you see how he came back. You see how he came back. So, we've been given a bad hand, but we're going to take that bad hand and it'll all be good,” Trump said, swirling his hand in the air as if he were using a wand to erase worries about North Korea and nuclear war from the minds of those gathered around him.
- Trump pledged to “never be intimidated by the dishonest media corporations who will say anything and do anything to get people to watch their screens or to get people to buy their failing papers.” Meanwhile, the young woman sitting behind him smiled at her phone.
- He complained that the media has unfairly expected him to have passed health-care legislation by now, even though prior administrations spent years trying to do so. (He failed to mention that he promised on the campaign trail to repeal and replace Obamacare on his first day in office.) A mention of Barack Obama brings boos from the crowd and scattered shouts of: “Lock her up,” a refrain usually directed at Clinton. Trump quipped: “After listening to that testimony, I fully understand.”
- Trump told the crowd that even if he presented Democrats with “the greatest [health-care] plan in history,” they would all vote against it because “they're obstructionists.” He reminded them that he wants a health-care plan “with heart,” tapping his own heart for emphasis. (The Republicans' current plan would result in millions of Americans losing their coverage.)
- Okay, back to that list of historic accomplishments: Trump said he has overseen the passage of 38 pieces of legislation — and he's hopeful that tax reform will happen, along with health-care reform and a burst of infrastructure projects.
- Trump was then back to blaming the Democrats and reminding the crowd that Democrats lost in Georgia's special election the night before. “They've been unbelievably nasty — really nasty,” Trump said. He then acknowledged that his comments could make it difficult for him to win the support of Democrats but “who cares.”
- In bashing CNN and “this phony NBC television network,” Trump again plugged his party's recent wins and then said: “They're very lucky that our people don't protest, believe me. Believe me. They're very lucky.” He spun in a circle, as the young woman behind him did a little dance with a pink “Women for Trump” sign.
- Trump then gave a shout-out to his “deplorables” and to bikers in the crowd.
- Back to accomplishments: Home builders are able to build again, farmers are able to plow their fields again, unemployment is at a 16-year low, and manufacturing is doing “phenomenally.”
- Trump, who once promised to take on Wall Street, then recognized his secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, whom he called “the legendary Wall Street genius,” and Gary Cohn, his economic council director who was the president of Goldman Sachs, a title that Trump repeated four times. “He went from massive pay days to peanuts, little tiny,” Trump said, using his fingers to show just how little tiny Cohn's income now is.
- Back to accomplishments: A “historic increase in defense spending,” a new office of accountability at Veterans Affairs, lifting restrictions on energy production, ending the “war on coal” and putting “miners back to work,” protecting Iowa's ethanol production and approving the Keystone pipeline project. (He then suggested that a consultant will try to claim credit for this approval and demand millions in compensation when, really, he's the one who made it happen.)
- In the future, Trump says he wants to get rid of the so-called “death tax” to make it easier for farmers to pass their farms and ranches along to their children and grandchildren. He added that this would also make it easier for bikers to pass along their motorcycles. “I've seen what you ride — not so bad,” he said. (Only estates worth $5.49 million per person are required to pay the federal estate tax.)
- More accomplishments: Announcing the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, symbolically pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade deal that he confusingly referred to as the “PPP”) and threatening to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, the young woman behind him chatted with her rally companions.
- “It is a big, beautiful arena, and it is packed,” Trump said, marveling at the size of his crowd. He then accused the media of not showing his crowd sizes and mocked the protester who interrupted him earlier in the rally. “Every seat is packed,” he said. “Every seat.” (Except for the 500 seats that the campaign blocked off and hid behind two massive American flags.)
- More accomplishments: Rescinding the Obama administration's “one-sided deal” with Cuba and naming former Iowa governor Terry Branstad as the ambassador to China. (“Fantastic guy,” Trump said.)
- And then he got to the things to come: Rebuild America, rebuild rural America, buy American, hire American, get people off welfare, bar legal immigrants from applying for welfare during their first five years in the United States (it has long been difficult for noncitizens to receive such benefits, and President Bill Clinton imposed even more restrictions), build the wall (and maybe put solar panels on it, so that it can pay for itself, he said), stop the drugs from flowing into the country and restore law and order.
- Shout-out to the men and women in law enforcement and to the relatives of those who were killed by immigrants who were in the country illegally. And Trump warned the crowd of the violent gang MS-13, which he said a friend told him is “the equivalent or worse than al-Qaeda,” and claimed to be kicking them out of the country by the thousands. There's another dig at the media and an explanation of what it means to have a 4.0 grade-point average.
- Trump said it was a “big, big deal” when he appointed Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He said that Gorsuch's “youth” was one of the reasons that he selected him — and then he promised the United States will have a strong military. Back on the topic of the Supreme Court, Trump said: "So I've got one. Probably have some more.”
Usually the president's rallies last just an hour. But on Wednesday night, Trump went an extra 10 minutes and in that bonus round, he fell back in time.
“So I began this campaign on June 16 — couple of days ago, two years. It's my birthday on June 14th, Flag Day,” Trump said. “And we came down the escalator — that famous escalator ride — Melania, myself, and the place went nuts and — hopefully because they liked me, but I think also they like the policies. I said the truth. I talked about immigration. I talked about what was happening on the borders. I talked about our military. I talked about the drug problems, which are tremendous, even in Iowa, tremendous problems, beyond anything we've ever seen before. I talked about all of it. And you know what? We were never off center-stage in the debates. ... We were Number One all the way through. All the way through. We were Number One all the way through because of people like you. Never off center!”
Trump then reflected on how 17 Republicans ran for president — and how he's now “making such incredible progress” and how that's driving reporters crazy.
“I mean, they have phony witch hunts going against me. They have everything going,” Trump said. “And you know what? All we do is win, win, win. We won last night.”
Without seeming to take a breath, the president then called for unity.
“It is time for us to remember that we are all Americans and that we are in this together, and it would be great if the Republicans and the Democrats could come together and get really, really great legislation passed,” Trump said.
The crowd applauded and several people whistled. The young woman sitting behind him grinned.
Trump complained about the media going hard on him, and Clinton running negative ads against him. (He did not mention nicknaming her “Crooked Hillary,” imitating her collapsing at a memorial event, questioning her use of the restroom during a debate, suggesting she may have played a role in a death that was declared a suicide and hosting a news conference featuring women who accused her husband of abuse.) The crowd then came to Trump's defense by chanting: “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
But Trump kept focused on himself.
“So from the time that I announced, I've been hit, hit, hit," he said. "Then from the time that I got in, I said: 'Oh, this is going to be great. Finally, we can all come together.' They hit me harder, harder, harder. They've now learned, I think, that that doesn't work."
He told the crowd to imagine what a unified country could achieve. He reflected on his trip to Saudi Arabia and called its leader “a very special man,” even though the country has an abysmal human rights record. Then he started to wrap up.
“You don't want me to leave,” Trump told the crowd. “I don't want to leave either.”
He told them that the country is getting stronger and better, that it will be setting records, that he will straighten out “the mess” overseas.
“You are incredible people. I want to thank you for your incredible support. And I just want you to know that God blesses you. And I just want to say you are special in every way. God bless you, and God bless America.”
The president then said “thank you” over and over again as his exit music played. He applauded, waved and pointed to people in the crowd. As he slowly made his way off the stage, he stopped to talk with the young woman in the black tank top, her friends recording the moment. He walked past a sign declaring, “Promises kept,” then an Iowa state flag, an American flag and a sign reading: “Promises made.” He pumped his fist.