The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Georgia rally, Trump spouts election falsehoods, amplifies old grievances

President Trump spoke at a rally on Dec. 5 to urge people to vote for Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue ahead of the runoffs on Jan. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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VALDOSTA, Ga. — In his first rally since losing the election last month, President Trump continued to spout conspiracy theories about voter fraud, falsely claiming that he had defeated President-elect Joe Biden.

“We’ve never lost an election. We’re winning this election,” Trump declared soon after he took the stage outside a hangar at Valdosta Regional Airport on Saturday night.

It was the first in a fire hose of falsehoods Trump offered up to a largely unmasked crowd of thousands, who cheered him on and repeatedly chanted “Four more years!”

Trump was ostensibly in the state to whip up support for Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are locked in tight Jan. 5 special election races with their respective Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock. At stake is control of the Senate, where Republicans hold 50 seats. If Democrats win both seats in Georgia, they will effectively have a majority, with Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris serving as a tie-breaking vote if needed.

But Trump mostly focused on himself. People held “Make America Great Again” placards and draped themselves in giant “Trump 2020” flags, and there was little noticeable signage for Perdue or Loeffler. Both incumbents addressed the crowd about 90 minutes before Trump took the stage at 7:23 p.m.

Once at the lectern, Trump spent most of his time airing grievances and falsehoods about the presidential race, occasionally weaving in mention of the Senate runoffs. He knocked Ossoff and Warnock as “radical Democrats” who would be “total pawns” of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). He also attacked Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Georgia Republicans who have repeatedly vouched for the integrity of the state’s elections.

There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud, nor of any fraud that would overturn the election results, as Trump has alleged. Trump’s legal team has lost nearly all of its cases in key states. Even Attorney General William P. Barr has said the Justice Department had found no evidence of voting fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election.

“I’ve probably worked harder in the last three weeks than I ever have in my life,” Trump told the crowd at one point, referring to his unprecedented personal efforts to overturn Biden’s victory since November.

Trump was introduced Saturday night by a surprise guest — first lady Melania Trump — who seemed to stick to prepared remarks, encouraging the crowd to vote for Loeffler and Perdue without mentioning her husband’s claims of a “rigged” election.

“President Trump continues to fight for you every single day. Do not let your voices be silenced,” she said. “We must keep our seats in the Senate. It is more important than ever that you exercise your right as an American citizen and vote.”

But the president quickly veered off course, bringing to life some Republicans’ concerns that Trump’s visit to Georgia would do more harm than good by continuing to erode GOP voters’ trust in the election system. Trump has said he would never concede to Biden, and emphasized that again on Saturday.

“If I lost, I’d be a very gracious loser. If I lost, I would say I lost and I’d go to Florida and I’d take it easy and I’d go around and I’d say I did a good job,” Trump said. “But you can’t ever accept when they steal and rig and lie.”

Nearly an hour into his remarks, Trump tried to thread the needle between claiming the election was rigged and to encourage his supporters to still vote in the Jan. 5 special election.

“You know, you’re angry because so many votes were stolen. It was taken away. And you say, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it.’ We can’t do that. We have to actually do just the opposite,” Trump said. “If you don’t vote, the socialists and the communists win, they win. Georgia patriots must show up and vote for these two incredible people.”

Trump calls Georgia governor to pressure him for help overturning Biden’s win in the state

Sharon Tanner, a school bus driver, had traveled with her family from Moultrie, Ga., to attend the rally. When asked who was going to be inaugurated Jan. 20, Tanner said she thought it would be Trump, not Biden.

“God’s going to open their mouths and let the truth come out,” she said.

Tanner, 53, said she didn’t know enough about Trump’s dispute with Raffensperger to comment, but she maintained that there had been enough fraud to overturn the election — and that she was planning to vote for Loeffler and Perdue on Jan. 5.

“I feel like we need to vote more now. [Trump] still needs us to do our part no matter what. I’m telling all my folks to come out and vote,” she said. “I believe he’s God’s anointed, that God chose him to fix our country.”

Both Democrats and Republicans ramped up the intensity of their campaigning in Georgia this weekend, sending high-profile surrogates to the Peach State in a frenetic final push to excite voters before voter registration for the Senate runoff election ends Monday.

Speaking at a virtual get-out-the-vote event Friday with Ossoff and Warnock, former president Barack Obama told Democrats that many of his first term’s signature accomplishments came about because he had a Democratic Senate. Even then, he admitted, it was a struggle to pass legislation “because of the way the U.S. Senate was set up.”

“The Senate is a place where, even with a big majority, it’s tough to get legislation through,” Obama said. “And if you don’t have a majority, if the Senate is controlled by Republicans who are interested in obstruction and gridlock rather than progress and helping people, they can block everything.”

Later, he added, “Once [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell was controlling that gavel and controlling the agenda in the Senate, we saw a lot of progress stop.”

Former president Barack Obama on Dec. 4 urged voters to support Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia's runoff elections. (Video: Democratic Party for Georgia)

Obama also knocked Republican lawmakers for politicizing measures that could be taken to bring the coronavirus under control, and referred to accusations of unethical financial trades both Perdue and Loeffler have faced.

“When you’ve got a bunch of senators who are downplaying a pandemic … and then as they’re downplaying it, as they’re ignoring the science and epidemiologists, suggesting that this is some partisan issue instead of something that Americans should rally around, at the same time, behind closed doors, they’re calling their brokers, that’s not public service,” Obama said. “That alone should motivate Georgians to say we want somebody in there who’s working for us.”

The virtual event also featured former Georgia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, whose work over the past two years organizing and mobilizing new voters, especially voters of color, is being credited for helping flip the state for the Democrats.

While Obama was speaking, Vice President Pence arrived at an airfield in Savannah in Air Force Two for a rally for Loeffler and Perdue. He spoke about the importance of the race but also weighed in on the GOP controversy over whether Republicans upset about Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims should skip the runoffs.

“I know we’ve all got our doubts about the last election, and I’ve heard some people say just don’t vote,” Pence told the crowd of hundreds. “My fellow Americans, if you don’t vote, they win.”

Pence, making his second trip to the state for the Senate runoffs, arrived the day after GOP legislators organized a hearing in which Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani suggested that there were enough allegations of irregularity to reverse the results of the presidential election. A recount, demanded by the Trump campaign, wrapped up the same day, and Republican election officials have suggested that Biden’s narrow victory would be certified again.

“I’ve heard many of you ask me: ‘Well, why should I vote? It’s rigged,’ ” said Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R), who represents Savannah in the House. “You have to get out. The president is out there making sure this was a transparent and honest election.”

Pence was not the only Republican acknowledging that questions about election integrity had sapped some voters’ enthusiasm. Soothing Republicans who think the election was stolen, while telling them to vote again in a few weeks, has been tricky for GOP leaders.

“We’re going to continue to fight for our president, Donald Trump,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel at the rally, telling the crowd to reelect their senators to “fight for election integrity so that this never happens again.”

“Don’t be pressed by somebody saying, ‘I’m just going to sit it out, I don’t like what they did in the general election,’ ” Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald said. “You’ve got to get over it. Please, get over it.”

Loeffler did not attend the rally, canceling her appearance after the death of a staffer in a car crash. Perdue did not mention the election challenges in his remarks, which focused on the liberal policies that could be approved if Republicans lose the Senate.

But Pence repeatedly referred to the election contest, promising to fight “until every legal vote” is counted, while urging Republicans to vote early or request absentee ballots — even as conservative activists suggest that those ballots were at the center of conspiracies to rig the vote.

“We’re on them this time,” Pence said. “We’re watching. We’re going to secure our polls. We’re going to secure our drop boxes. So get an absentee ballot and turn it in today.”

Several Republicans who came to see Pence acknowledged the controversy and said that they, too, had questions about the vote but that they still intended to cast ballots.

“I’m keeping the faith,” said Kevin Volland, 45, as he waited for Pence to speak in Savannah on Friday. “How is there a Senate runoff, anyway? Did they swing votes away from Perdue and Loeffler? Possibly. I don’t feel 100 percent confident about Jan. 5, but I’ll be there, because I have faith. I have to.”

Harold Holifield, 59, an Army veteran from Effingham County, Ga., said he hoped Republicans would stay together.

“You don’t destroy each other trying to get toward a common goal,” Holifield said. “Hopefully [Republicans are] working for a common goal. If not, they’re turning into cannibals and eating their own.”