GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — President Trump returned to this Rust Belt city nearly 2½ years after he made it the final stop of his victorious presidential campaign, this time to declare another political triumph and reset his presidency as he looks ahead to 2020.
Buoyed by what he called the “beautiful conclusion” to the 22-month special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump arrived to a raucous welcome at a packed Van Andel Arena for a “Make America Great Again” rally he hoped would fortify his base and set a tone for his reelection effort.
“After three years of lies and spin and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead,” Trump said to cheers from the crowd. “The special counsel completed its report and found no collusion and no obstruction. I could have told you that 2½ years ago. Total exoneration. Complete vindication.”
After being mired in low public approval ratings early this year and buffeted by Democrats’ takeover of the House, Trump has felt emboldened since Attorney General William P. Barr sent Congress a summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, finalized last week. Barr’s memo stated that Mueller did not “find” or “establish” a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and Russian operatives.
Though Mueller did not make a determination over whether the president had sought to obstruct justice, Barr said his review of the report determined that Trump had not done so — a conclusion Democrats have called premature because the full report has not been delivered to Congress or made public.
The president cast the investigation as an attempt from Democrats, the media and the “deep state” intelligence community to overturn his election and take over the country.
“It was nothing but a sinister effort . . . to sabotage the will of the American people,” Trump said. He called the investigation an “elaborate hoax” that amounted to an effort to “illegally regain power by framing innocent Americans.”
As he did last month, the president used an expletive to describe investigations into his administration from House Democrats, and he called on them to “apologize to the American people.”
Democrats have demanded the release of Mueller’s full report, which numbers more than 300 pages. But Trump and his allies have sought to use Barr’s memo to declare victory and attack political rivals and mainstream media outlets. On Twitter, Trump asserted that Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigations, “should be forced to resign from Congress!” Trump also wrote: “The Fake News Media is going Crazy! They are suffering a major ‘breakdown,’ have zero credibility or respect.”
“You know it’s interesting, Robert Mueller was a god to the Democrats, was a god to them until he said there was no collusion,” Trump said. “They don’t like him so much right now.”
At the rally, the president was met with chants of “Four more years!” from the crowd, which also booed at Trump’s mention of Democrats and the news media, and chanted “Lock her up” at the mention of Hillary Clinton.
Before he arrived, the crowd at one point chanted “AOC sucks,” a reference to the liberal Democratic congresswoman from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a favorite foil for conservatives. Later, in a preview of what’s to come over the next 19 months, Trump called Democrats “socialists” who have a “cynical and destructive agenda of radicalism, resistance and revenge.”
Trump also talked about the border, his last campaign’s signature issue and a surefire hit with his supporters. To chants of “Build the wall,” he promised them he was doing so and threatened that if anyone tried to stop him, he would shut down the border.
“Democrats want to pretend there is no border crisis,” he said.
Trump then questioned the legitimacy of migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Claiming that lawyers coach them, he mimicked asylum seekers, saying, “I am very afraid for my life, I am afraid for my life.”
“It’s a big fat con job,” he said.
The president and a bevy of White House aides, as well as some former campaign staffers, were in high spirits post-Mueller report as they departed Washington and traveled here aboard Air Force One.
As the president touched down on Marine One at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland, some familiar faces were waiting for him on the tarmac: former campaign managers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, whose presence lent the trip a nostalgic feel.
Trump had stopped in Grand Rapids in the early morning of Nov. 8, 2016, Election Day. It was a last-minute decision by his campaign team to stop in this crucial state, where his narrow victory helped power his upset over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. During that rally, which took place at 1 a.m., Trump had promised to bring back manufacturing jobs, including those in the auto industry, to Michigan — and told more than 4,000 supporters he would return to the state many times once he did.
Thursday’s rally was Trump’s sixth campaign event in Grand Rapids but his first as president. He returned about a month after being elected as part of a victory tour.
Since taking office, however, Trump has struggled to deliver on the promise of jobs. The number of auto manufacturing jobs in the nation has risen by 51,000 to just over 1 million, a 5 percent increase since the president took office, according to an Associated Press fact check in February.
Van Andel Arena was full to capacity as Trump’s motorcade pulled up just after 6 p.m. The Trump campaign’s soundtrack blared from the sound system as the president met privately with supporters and donors ahead of his remarks. A giant American flag was set up inside the arena, along with signs reading, “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and electronic billboards bearing the “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
Campaign aides believe Michigan, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which Trump also won in 2016, remain crucial to his chances in 2020 — and his rally here was a signal that the president intends to campaign heavily through the region.
Trump said he was going to fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, contradicting his 2020 budget proposal that massively cut the program.
“I support the Great Lakes. Always have. They’re beautiful. They’re big. Very deep. Record deep,” he said.
“Will be heading to Grand Rapids, Michigan, tonight for a Big Rally,” Trump wrote on Twitter before leaving the White House. “Will be talking about the many exciting things that are happening to our Country, but also the car companies & others, that are pouring back into Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North & South Carolina & all over!”
Thousands of people lined up to try to get into Trump’s rally on Thursday afternoon, forming a blocks-long line that snaked through downtown Grand Rapids. A jumbo video screen was set up outside so that those who were not able to get tickets were able to watch the president’s remarks.
A couple hundred protesters also gathered outside the arena, and many more gathered in a park a few blocks away, rallying around a giant balloon depicting the president as a diaper-wearing baby.
Outside the arena, several protesters held signs that equated being a Trump supporter with white supremacy, including a woman with a sign that read: “Red hats are the new white hoods.” One man held a homemade sign written in red and blue markers that read: “STILL guilty of collusion.” A woman held a small sign that stated: “NOT exonerated.”
Itkowitz reported from Washington. Jenna Johnson in Grand Rapids contributed to this report.