GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The two-year special counsel investigation was supposed to provide clarity and closure. But when President Trump arrives here on Thursday for his first rally since Robert S. Mueller III finished his work, he will face a city where the facts of the report have done little more than inflame passions.
A few blocks from the arena, Karen Dunnam, 62, will be taking part in a protest that she helped organize. She will be demonstrating against Trump but also the “Magahats,” which she pronounces “maggots,” who have come to support him. Like most of her friends, she’s convinced that Mueller’s two years of work must have produced something damning and fatal to the Trump presidency.
“One doesn’t spend two years investigating things, issuing indictments and causing the federal courts to churn without having something,” she said. “There’s something in there.”
Inside the arena, which is likely to be packed with more than 12,000 people, Liz Johnson, a law student and mother of three boys, will be volunteering on behalf of her president. She wonders about the damage done by the long investigation and why it couldn’t have been completed sooner.
“Mueller knew there was no evidence in March 2018, and he sat on it. All of this time, we could have put the past behind us and healed,” said Johnson, 39, referring to an announcement by House Republicans then that Trump’s campaign hadn’t colluded with Russia. “This was the undermining of a president — and the undermining of a president doesn’t do anything good for the country.”
This is how it has gone for much of America in the days since Attorney General William P. Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller investigation was made public.
A report that was supposed to reveal indisputable facts for partisans on both sides of an ever-widening political divide has given way to a new set of arguments. Most Americans long ago settled into three camps: those who oppose the president, those who support the president and those who have stopped listening to both sides.
Many Republicans, like Johnson, said that the report proved definitively that Trump was the victim of a baseless two-year vendetta brought on by a deep-state Washington establishment that he had vowed to dethrone.
Many Democrats, like Dunnam, said the real truth about Trump was buried somewhere in the unreleased details of Mueller’s report — and even if it’s not, their concerns about the president and the direction of the country are not limited to a single investigation or a single report.
Nothing will change either of their minds.
Nearly five decades ago, the country faced a similar moment of rancor when Gerald R. Ford, raised in this city, assumed the presidency after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. “Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford said upon taking office.
Today, there’s little sense on either side of the political divide that anything has ended.
Trump’s rally in Grand Rapids was announced in early March, before the Mueller report was officially finished, before the attorney general wrote his summary of it.
The summary’s release on Sunday, though, did little to change the way either side was preparing for the president’s arrival.
Dunnam had begun planning for Trump in early March, when she was scrolling through Facebook and noticed the rally announcement. By that point, she had been protesting Trump’s presidency for nearly two years. She had celebrated “Not My Presidents’ Day” and marched for women and science and against guns.
She had been laid off from her job at a mobile phone company in 2009 and collected 99 weeks of unemployment while searching for new work. She was on the verge of taking a low-wage job at a Starbucks or grocery store when a family tragedy brought her relief. Her father, a physician, died and left her an inheritance that was enough to live a modest life.
Her activism, meanwhile, brought new friends, a sense of belonging and new purpose.
Lately, though, the pace of protests, marches and demonstrations had slowed down “a lot,” she said. So on that quiet Sunday morning, she pulled out her phone and did something she had never done before: She started organizing a counter-rally, scheduled for Thursday, the day of Trump’s arrival in her city.
Her hopeful name for the event: “Protest 45 Mueller Time.”
With two days until Trump’s arrival in Grand Rapids, Dunnam was hard at work on her protest and barely thinking about the Mueller report. A local activist had seen her announcement on Facebook and offered to help Dunnam arrange to bring a big, helium-filled “Trump baby balloon” over from Chicago.
Together, they started a GoFundMe page to raise $1,300 to cover the costs of the balloon, the helium and the necessary permitting.
“We’ve become best buddies over the last couple of weeks,” Dunnam said.
The state Democratic Party was lining up speakers. An anti-Trump puppeteer/ventriloquist from Shelby Township on the other side of the state had offered to perform free.
Dunnam’s phone dinged with a new message from her friend. Their “helium guy” had picked up the tanks for Thursday, but the price had gone up another $200. Dunnam flipped over to their “GoFundMe” page to check the latest tally. They were up to $697.
Trump’s last two visits to Grand Rapids came in rapid succession in late 2016. On the eve of the presidential election, he jetted into the city on short notice to shore up support in a state that would become crucial to his unexpected victory. One month later, he returned to Grand Rapids on a victory tour.
Back then, he appeared in smaller venues. For his return as president, his staff booked the largest space in town: Van Andel Arena, which can hold at least 12,000 people. One of those will be Johnson.
She was a reluctant convert to Trumpism, turned off by his braggadocios manner and less-than-saintly life. In the hours before going to the polls in 2016, she sought out advice from friends on Facebook and her son’s piano teacher, and she decided that she had to vote for Trump, largely because of his conservative policies and opposition to abortion. Her views of Trump began to shift the moment he climbed the steps of the U.S. Capitol and delivered his inaugural address in January 2017.
Johnson couldn’t understand why media outlets cast that speech as dark and dystopian. To her, it was a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the country’s problems and a promise to represent the people, not the political elite. “It spoke to me,” she said.
As the months passed, it seemed to her that the world was growing safer and the economy stronger. She noticed that her father, a veteran, was receiving better care at the VA facility in Ann Arbor.
She couldn’t understand why Democrats were incessantly attacking Trump and why they seemed to be hoping Mueller would find evidence that the president had conspired with Russia or betrayed the country.
“I’m still not one of those who will wear a MAGA hat . . . but I’m cheering him on,” she said. “There’s something about him that’s igniting people and exciting people.”
One of those people, increasingly, was her.
She spent Wednesday sequestered at her home in Cedar Springs, a small town north of Grand Rapids, studying for her law school classes so that she would be able to take Thursday off to help with the rally and cheer on the president as he celebrates his latest victory over the political elites who tried to take him down.
Johnson gestured to a wall of televisions playing that night’s NCAA tournament game.
“People root for this, they get involved and go to games and place bet; they say sports is their life,” Johnson said. “Not for my husband and me. For us, it’s politics.”
Less than 24 hours until Trump would arrive, Dunnam was making sure everything was ready. The speakers were set. The Trump baby balloon was en route. She planned to bring her own public address system. “I call square dances, so I don’t need to rent one,” she told the city official in charge of protest permitting.
“Sounds like your event is really coming together,” the official said. “About how many participants do you expect?”
“Oh gosh, I have no idea,” she replied.
She checked her GoFundMe page, where the tally was up to $1,724, and scanned the donors’ comments. “Thank you for all you do,” wrote someone from Georgia who had sent $10.
“Trump must go to prison before he kills us all,” wrote another, who gave $50.
Johnson had heard that hundreds, possibly thousands of protesters, were planning to come to Grand Rapids.
To her, it seemed as though everyone was “addicted to rage.” She noticed that liberal activists were circulating the hashtag #notwelcomehere ahead of the president’s arrival.
“It’s so mean,” she said. “I would have never done that to Obama.”
Soon Trump would arrive and both Dunnam and Johnson would take up their battle positions in America’s seemingly unending family fight. For now, though, the city was quiet.
Just a few blocks from where Trump will speak and Johnson and Dunnam will gather, a temple to a different kind of politics was mostly empty.
At the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, a husband and wife, both flight attendants on a 24-hour layover in Grand Rapids, looked at black-and-white photos of that earlier era. Usually they only talk politics, they said, when they are traveling overseas and the people they meet bring it up. Almost always, people want to know what’s gone so wrong with the United States.
“You don’t want people to think of your country that way,” the husband said.
“There’s too much anger,” his wife replied. “We try to keep aloof from it all.”
In the background, the speech Ford delivered from the Oval Office on Sept. 8, 1974, pardoning Nixon, played on a loop, echoing through the empty rooms. Etched nearby on a wall was a line from Ford’s autobiography explaining the decision that would lead to his election defeat in 1976. “America needed recovery, not revenge,” Ford wrote. “The hate had to be drained and the healing begun.”