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Trump launches reelection bid with familiar themes, redoubling focus on his most avid backers

President Trump started campaigning for 2020 almost as soon as he entered the White House, and he made it official June 18 at a rally in Orlando. (Video: REF:gerbergj/The Washington Post)

ORLANDO — In the 24 hours before President Trump was slated to formally launch his reelection bid here in the nation’s largest swing state, he pledged to begin rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants, undercut his top officials by downplaying attacks on tankers in the Middle East and announced that his acting defense secretary would leave the job after family domestic violence allegations came to light.

A similar rush of headlines might have seemed extraordinary during previous administrations. For Trump, it was just another day.

But while the high drama and persistent controversies that have defined the Trump White House are a continuation of how he conducted his successful campaign in 2016, he is now an incumbent with a record of actions that have affected people’s lives and their sense of stability.

President Trump, at his 2020 reelection announcement, attacked political opponents, criticized the media and warned his supporters about "far-left politicians." (Video: The Washington Post)

Polls have consistently shown that more people disapprove of Trump’s handling of his job than approve, but the president has not calibrated, instead redoubling his focus on his most avid backers.

At the Amway Center here, Trump told the crowd that his election in 2016 was the result of a great political movement that has been under attack ever since, despite what he described as the great successes of his presidency.

“We accomplished more than any other president has in the first 2½ years of a presidency and under circumstances that no president has had to deal with before,” he said, using the hyperbole that has marked much of his career.

Trump’s argument for a second term then quickly became a rehash of grievances and false claims from his first campaign, along with a hit parade of Trump rally applause lines. He veered off script to rail at length against the “witch hunt” special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and revisited complaints about the media, “Crooked Hillary” and her missing emails.

The scene in Orlando as Trump launches his reelection bid

June 18, 2019 | President Trump greets former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders after announcing his official 2020 campaign for president at the Amway Center in Orlando. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)

“They are really going after you,” Trump said of the list of enemies he laid out for the crowd. “They tried to erase your vote, erase the legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election probably in the history of the country.”

And he warned of the threats posed by immigrants, a focus of his presidency that has thrilled his most ardent supporters and caused his critics to accuse him of promoting racism.

“It’s time to pass Kate’s Law, end sanctuary cities, end catch-and-release, deport vicious gang members — which we’re doing — stop human trafficking, stop illegal immigration and establish a modern immigration system based on skills, contributions and based on merit,” Trump said. “We want people to come into our country based on merit.”

Trump’s rambling performance was in itself a portrait of his presidency — singular, highly personalized and undisciplined.

It’s that approach that appeals to supporters like 36-year-old ­Michelle Best, who described Trump’s brashness as “brilliant.”

“He knows how to irritate people. He’s very intelligent. He knows how to get to them,” said Best, a Brandon, Fla., resident who traveled here for Trump’s rally. “Trump knows weaknesses, and he knows how to exploit them. Is he the nicest guy? Nice doesn’t get things done. I don’t want a nice president. I want a president that gets things done. And he’s getting things done.”

Some critics warn, however, that the president’s flair for drama and controversy is turning off moderate voters and making Democrats more determined to oust him in 2020.

“It helps fuel Democratic energy because everything Democrats see coming out of the White House is exactly why they want to make sure a Democrat wins,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” “It’s not just about policy, it’s about the way he runs the country.”

Before he boarded Air Force One to leave Washington, Trump set himself apart from his predecessors in another way: He announced the appointment of his third Pentagon chief in less than three years, Mark T. Esper, who has served as Army secretary since 2017.

“Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who has done a wonderful job, has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family,” the president wrote Tuesday on Twitter, the medium he has used over the past three years to fire top officials, threaten to attack countries, spring policies on his unsuspecting aides and insult his perceived enemies.

Shanahan — meant to replace Jim Mattis, who left after clashing with Trump on Syria — bowed out of consideration following news reports of family violence allegations. He denied any wrongdoing.

The turbulence atop the Defense Department comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East. On Monday, the Pentagon announced plans to send 1,000 more troops to the region after the United States said Iran was to blame for attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

But in an interview with Time magazine published Monday, Trump undercut senior officials at the Pentagon and the State Department by describing the attacks as “very minor.”

That interview published just hours after Trump took to Twitter to announce that his administration would be conducting mass arrests of undocumented immigrants — the latest in a series of policies Trump has embraced in his so far unsuccessful attempt to reduce the number of migrants crossing the southern border. 

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump wrote, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Large-scale enforcement operations by ICE are usually kept confidential to avoid alerting targets. 

But Trump’s restless approach to the presidency allows him to show his supporters that he is a man of action who isn’t bound by the traditional strictures of establishment politics, said Bryan Lanza, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition.

“The American people said that ‘D.C. wasn’t working, we need a disrupter.’ And they hired Donald Trump to be president to disrupt a broken system in Washington, D.C.,” Lanza said, adding that the president is able to draw large crowds by keeping things interesting. “It’s the greatest show on Earth.”

Trump himself has mocked the idea of behaving like a traditional politician, occasionally drifting from his prepared remarks and describing them as “boring.”

Democrats running for president are banking on the idea that most Americans are ready to return to a more predictable presidency. They have criticized Trump for departing from norms, undermining U.S. allies and leaving the public in a constant state of anxiety about what he might do next.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly pledged to “change the channel” from Trump’s antics. 

Former vice president Joe Biden has staked much of his candidacy on the idea that defeating Trump after one term will allow a return to normalcy. “Let’s make America America again,” he said last week while campaigning in Iowa.

According to public polling, including a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released Tuesday, Biden leads Trump in several key states. Trump’s campaign parted ways over the weekend with three of its pollsters after internal results leaked showing the president trailing Biden in states across the country.

While some Democratic presidential candidates issued written statements responding to Trump’s launch, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) delivered a rebuttal that his campaign broadcast live online Tuesday night. In it, he reprised many of the attacks he has used against the president on the campaign trail, including labeling him a “racist.”

Sanders said watching Trump speak was an “extremely unpleasant experience” and he focused the bulk of his response on highlighting what Trump didn’t say. He accused the president of negligence on climate change, the nation’s infrastructure and student debt. When it came to the economy, Sanders said that although the stock market and unemployment indicators are encouraging, “Trump didn’t talk about the half of America that has zero wealth at all.”

Some of the president’s allies have encouraged him to focus squarely on what he has been able to achieve for the American people. 

“Message I hope we hear from @realDonaldTrump Tue.: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago . . . and are you willing to give it all up and go back to how things used to be?’’’ Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign communications director, wrote Monday on Twitter. “Puts focus on accomplishments and works whether it’s a change vs. status quo or ideological battle.”

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale predicted in a CBS News interview Tuesday that Trump would win “even more electoral points than he did last time.” He argued that public polls today are inaccurate.

“I just think the country is too complex now to call a couple hundred people and ask them what they think,” Parscale said. “There are so many ways and different people who show up and vote now. The way turnout works now. The abilities we have now to turn out voters. The polling can’t understand that. And that’s why the polling was so wrong in 2016.”

Trump chose a 20,000-seat sports arena in central Florida for his formal reelection announcement and said he could have filled it many times over.

By Tuesday morning, streets around the Amway Center were closed for a pre-rally gathering the campaign dubbed “45 Fest,” crowded with vendors whose ­T-shirts and buttons could be chapter titles in the story of the four years since Trump first announced his candidacy for President: “Make America Great Again.” “Lock her up.” “America First.” “Keep America Great.”

Downpours and thunderstorm forecasts put a damper on things outdoors, however, and many fled inside early. 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 queued 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.

Demonstrators included undocumented immigrants who had worked at Trump golf resorts, as well as Hispanic advocacy groups that oppose Trump’s immigration policies and treatment of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens. Organizers of a Trump protest said they had raised enough money to bring a “Baby Trump” balloon, depicting the president as an angry diapered infant with a cellphone, to downtown Orlando.

On the day of Trump’s visit, the hometown paper, the Orlando Sentinel, published an editorial announcing that it would not endorse him for reelection.

“After 2½ years we’ve seen enough,” the paper said. “Enough of the chaos, the division, the schoolyard insults, the self-aggrandizement, the corruption, and especially the lies. So many lies — from white lies to whoppers — told out of ignorance, laziness, recklessness, expediency or opportunity.”

Inside the arena before Trump appeared, electronic signs ringing the stands read “Keep America Great!” in a bow to the reelection theme, but smaller signs also read, “MAGA.”

Ahead of Trump’s arrival, his son Donald Trump Jr. drew whoops and cheers as he mocked Biden and other Democrats and proclaimed that his father “accomplished more in trade with Mexico in one tweet” than any of his predecessors.

Bellowing and cracking jokes, the younger Trump told the crowd they are part of a movement, arrayed against media and political forces that doubted Trump from the start.

“We’re fighting with one arm, two arms, sometimes a leg, tied behind our backs,” the younger Trump told the crowd, which booed and jeered the press section on cue.

The reelection campaign hopes that the crusading, us-against-the-world spirit that fills arenas like this one translates to votes, although the argument is shifting from one of grievance to vindication.

Trump is running on strong economic performance this time, in addition to nationalist anti-immigrant themes that delight some of his strongest supporters.

“You guys are not sick of winning yet, are you?” the younger Trump asked, as the crowd waved signs reading “Four More Years.”

“We’re going to keep it going for a little bit!”

Sean Sullivan contributed to this story.