ORLANDO — As Donald Trump took the stage at the Amway Center Tuesday night, a handful of supporters stationed outside the arena stood and sang along with “God Bless the USA,” which was playing on a block of speakers.
For the most part, things were quiet in the area outside the arena, a once-grass field where an overflow crowd would have watched had there been one. As it happened, the arena held most everyone who came, which meant all that was left in the overflow space were abandoned folding chairs and coolers, left by those who had celebrated the president’s second campaign all day, then headed in to hear him speak by night.
That field, and the food trucks on one side, and the stage at one end, hosted the Trump campaign’s kickoff event, an all-day celebration they called “45 Fest” where supporters gathered as much to secure a seat for his speech as to tailgate.
“I enjoy the people. Like-minded. Hard working. We come out here to support this guy,” said Ryan Farley, who drove from West Palm Beach and slept in his car overnight to be there.
“He has to be re-elected. We had eight years of going right off the cliff. We don’t want Joe Biden. Plus, Who doesn’t like Trump? Everybody likes Trump. I wear my hat to Home Depot, Walmart. Everybody comes up to me and shakes my hand.”
Hours ahead of the rally, pouring rain threatened to dampen the excitement of what Trump’s campaign has predicted would be a gathering of thousands outside the Amway Arena. Supporters began lining up a day early, local news outlets said Monday.
“The Fake News doesn’t report it, but Republican enthusiasm is at an all time high,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Look what is going on in Orlando, Florida, right now! People have never seen anything like it (unless you play a guitar). Going to be wild — See you later!”
Florida is a must-win state for Trump next year, with its 29 electoral votes becoming especially important if he loses Pennsylvania or another of the more populous states that helped him win in 2016. Trump carried Florida, where he has a vacation home and three golf resorts, by a little more than one percentage point in 2016.
As buses of supporters pulled up to join the fray, dozens of red hats visible through the tinted windows, a few dozen activists and supporters packed into a room in a small business park a few miles away. There, under spotty fluorescent lighting, in front of a tripod or two, five undocumented immigrants who worked for the Trump family until they were terminated earlier this year in a Trump organization purge gathered with their lawyers to accuse the president of hypocrisy and deceit.
Monday, Trump tweeted that ICE will “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens” in the country, something his former employees and their lawyer said was a continuation of vilification of immigrants by someone who employed many of them.
“These people worked for the President of the United States, some of them for over a decade. They worked directly in his house,” said Anibal Romero, a New Jersey-based lawyer who is handling the cases of undocumented former Trump employees. “If we are supposed to be afraid of them, how can we give them the keys to our house, to do our laundry, to cook our food, to take care of our grandkids? That is what some of these people were doing for the Trump family for many, many years.”
Meanwhile, campaign volunteers in lime green shirts asked supporters to sign their names on clipboards, asserting their support for another Trump term and, specifically, their support of his immigration policies.
Those volunteers walked that fenced-off paddock, into which attendees poured without a bag check or metal detector, lines for cold water and drinks grew longer and a sea of umbrellas grew larger as supporters hunted for shade. They blocked the giant screen where people who didn’t make it into his rally would watch the president speak later. A man with a clicker stood at the entrance to the compound, counting the number of people he had let inside, which never was too many for everyone to have ample space to maneuver.
But at around 1:30 p.m., clouds charged in, and with them a heavy breeze that left vendors trying to hold their tents to the ground. Just as the man at the gate announced that he could not let anyone else into the arena, thunder boomed. Shortly after, a voice on the loudspeaker declared that anyone not in line at that moment would not be making it into the building right away.
Moments later, a drenching rain fell.
The abrupt closing of the gates left supporters in ponchos debating whether to run for cover or lose their place in line. Thunderstorms were in the forecast all evening, threatening to dampen the excitement of what the Trump campaign predicted would be a gathering of thousands outside the arena.
Rain came and went, but the thousands didn’t arrive. By late afternoon, the area outside the arena was almost entirely devoid of people, filled instead with the folding chairs and coolers attendees had to abandon to go inside. As officials cued up groups of a couple thousand per hour — the most they could move through security safely — the scene remained relatively quiet.
The Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed Western Chauvinist group, coalesced outside the arena. Police blocked their path forward. A few anti-Trump protesters assembled in the streets around the arena.
By the time Trump took the stage, less than 200 people were gathered outside, many of them choosing against entering the arena, which was still allowing entrants until just before the speech.
“He’s a smart man,” said Tony Raneri, who chose not to go inside so his wife could smoke, and said his business has doubled since Trump took office. “He knows how to get to the people. He’s getting it out there.”
Raneri and others cheered as Trump lauded his achievements and criticized Hillary Clinton. They cheered when he talked about improved job numbers, booed when he talked about the Mueller report, and yelled “Tell ‘em Trump!” here and there from their lawn chairs.
Behind the giant screen on which they watched him, a few protesters held up anti-Trump signs and a Mexican flag, and yelled “liar” and other choice words at various points in his speech. They stayed behind the fence, and security only intervened once – when a man attending the rally tried to shake the protesters’ hands.
After about an hour, a stream of people began to head out of the arena. A few meandered back to the field, hunting for their folding chairs and coolers by the light of the big screen. President Trump had not finished yet.
Gearan and Sonmez reported from Washington. John Wagner contributed to this report.