The crowd cheered, and a bearded man in the stands bellowed: “Four more years! Four more years!” Phones and cameras bobbed above the sea of heads as each supporter gathered photographic evidence that they were with the president the night he was impeached.
They couldn’t always hear what their leader was saying or fully follow his train of thought — which bounced from Michigan potholes to trade policy to an Air Force pilot he once met who was “better looking than Tom Cruise” to funding for historically black colleges and universities. But that didn’t really matter because that night they were just there to stand with Trump as he made sense of his impeachment’s place in history.
“With Richard Nixon, I just see it as a very dark era,” Trump said of the threat of impeachment that president faced in 1973. “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a good time. It’s crazy.”
The good time continued for more than two hours, as Trump kept talking and kept delaying his return to Washington. His face flushed and grew slick with sweat, and his voice strained. He bragged and fumed, imitated and mocked, cast himself as a victim and attacked those who dared to challenge him, including a recently widowed congresswoman. He chastised the arena’s security guards for not aggressively grabbing the wrists of a protester being removed. He spoke extensively off the cuff, then suddenly switched to a traditional campaign speech, then cut himself off with a tangent. He repeatedly repeated himself.
Time after time, Trump seemed to start wrapping up, only to launch into one story, air one more grievance, shame one more enemy, list one more overlooked accomplishment, lash out at one more media outlet, detail one more gruesome murder committed by an undocumented immigrant.
The rally was held in Battle Creek — a small city of roughly 50,000 in Calhoun County in southern Michigan that’s home to the Kellogg Company, the cereal giant whose name is on the arena where Trump gathered with his supporters. In 2016, this county voted for Trump after voting twice for President Barack Obama.
Most supporters had to wait in line outside for hours as the temperature hovered around 18 degrees and stiff winds blew snow off rooftops. They dressed in layers, shared hand warmers and urged one another not to give up and go home. One 66-year-old woman took her boots off and wrapped her frozen feet in her coat, but concluded hours later after seeing the president for the first time: “It was worth it.”
A local dental clinic closed for the afternoon, rescheduling its patients so that employees could attend the rally. The owners of a motorcycle shop in southwestern Michigan shut down for the day — passing on the $80 per hour they usually make servicing motorcycles — so they could “be with our president who thinks of us and is so close to being us.” A young-adult fiction writer said she pulled her teenage daughter out of school for the day so she could witness history and watch how the president responded to being unfairly bullied. And a retired couple drove three hours from their home in Indiana so they could be with Trump.
“He’s my president, and Democrats are treating him pretty damn bad,” said Richard Staut, 70, a retired landscaper who lives in Kokomo, Ind. “I wanted to be here for him. He’s my president.”
“This pumps him up,” said Shari Smith, 57, who works at the hospital in Battle Creek and was glad the rally fell on her day off. “The people give him energy to go on.”
These supporters created the president’s favorite sort of environment, a place where he will be listened to and cheered, no matter what he says. In this warm bubble, the media was too far away to shout questions and his supporters were close enough to exclaim things like: “We love you!”
The rally had a Christmas theme, and Trump appeared through a faux brick chimney, Santa-style. He learned the final vote tally via a sign held up by his campaign spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, whom he seemed to call “Hailey.” He celebrated that all Republicans voted against the impeachment charges, without mentioning that Rep. Justin Amash — whose Michigan district he was standing in — left the Republican Party earlier this year and voted for impeachment. He noted that three Democrats opposed one or both of the charges. Again and again, he proclaimed his innocence.
“They don’t even have any crime!” the president said at one point. “This is the first impeachment where there’s no crime. I say: ‘Tell me what I did, please.’ ‘Well, we don’t know. You violated the Constitution.’ ”
The president and his allies have laid out a series of defenses over the past few weeks, which the president’s supporters echoed as they discussed the impeachment Wednesday. To many, the impeachment was simply a political circus orchestrated by Democrats who have been trying to get rid of the president since he was elected.
“Nothing impeachable,” said Michael VanMeter, 52, a tattoo shop owner from the Grand Rapids area.
“Just a witch hunt,” said James Sylvester, 59, a retired emergency dispatcher from Dowagiac, Mich. “A farce.”
“A joke,” said Veronica Velleco, a casino worker from Battle Creek. “A last-ditch effort to get rid of him because they know they can’t beat him.”
Although the president didn’t get to stare down members of Congress through the television screen as they cast their votes, their faces seemed fresh in his mind as he rattled through a list of those he believed had betrayed him.
His cruelest attack was on Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), whose husband — former congressman John Dingell — died in February. Trump said he gave the late congressman — the longest-serving member in the history of the House — “the A-plus treatment” when he died and that Debbie Dingell called to thank him. Trump recounted the conversation, becoming breathless as he imitated the grieving widow: “John would be so thrilled. He’s looking down, he’d be so thrilled. Thank you so much, sir.” Trump then added: “Maybe he’s looking up, you don’t know.”
Although the crowd initially booed the congresswoman, there were surprised gasps in the audience when Trump implied that Dingell’s late husband was in hell — along with some whistles and cheers. In the stands, several people asked one another if Trump had actually just said that.
Later in the evening, Dingell tweeted: “I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
As Trump rattled through his grievances, he also lashed out at Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) for accepting campaign donations from him for “years and years and years” and then voting for his impeachment. He accused Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) of being a “stone-faced . . . pathological liar” who fabricated information about Trump that’s “totally fictitious, totally out of thin air.” The president also insisted that the representative is “not the best looking guy,” to which a supporter in the crowd shouted: “He’s a piece of Schiff!”
Trump said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) used to “kiss my ass” years ago when he came looking for campaign cash.
He read aloud from a letter he sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the day before in which he accused her of waging a “war on American democracy,” threatening to destroy the country that the Founding Fathers envisioned and “interfering in America’s elections.” Later in the evening, Trump said that Pelosi should focus on the problems of homelessness and poverty in her home state and pledged to “vote her the hell out of office.”
Whenever Trump mentioned Pelosi, a man in the crowd dressed as Santa stood and shouted: “Nancy Pelosi is a ho, ho, ho!” Outside the arena, about 200 protesters gathered, including one dressed as Santa with a sign that read: “A lump of coal for the Twitter troll.”
Throughout the night, Trump kept fondly reflecting back on the “wonderful, beautiful journey” of his 2016 presidential campaign — and provided previews of his attacks on the next crop of Democratic candidates. At one point, he imagined aloud a conversation between Clinton and her husband, the last president to be impeached.
“You horrible human being, you better start listening to me, or you’re gonna get your ass whooped,” Trump said, pretending to be President Bill Clinton berating his wife for not campaigning in states like Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016.
As Trump’s speech stretched on, the crowd slowly started to thin. Three teenagers had to be home before their 10 p.m. curfew. The foul-mouthed Santa stuffed his hat and beard into a grocery sack. A local single mother asked if Melania Trump was expected to come onstage as she debated whether she should stay until the end.
Onstage, Trump riffed on how energy-efficient lightbulbs make his skin look orange and how modern water-saving dishwashers don’t properly clean dishes. He promised to continue to restrict the resettlement of refugees and admitted that he didn’t like Michigan’s previous governor, even though he was a fellow Republican. He bragged about firing former FBI director James B. Comey and wondered which tough-looking guys in the front row should go into law enforcement.
“The best is yet to come,” Trump declared, but then quickly stopped his slide toward an ending by saying: “You know, the interesting thing . . . ” Finally, after another aside about his successes, Trump promised to make America great again. The crowd cheered as the Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared.
Trump lingered on the stage for two-and-a-half more minutes, pointing to people in the crowd, waving and pumping his fist. He then disappeared into the faux brick Christmas chimney and started his journey back to Washington.