ORLANDO, Fla. - In the 24 hours before President Donald 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.
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.
"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, Florida, 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 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, Indiana, 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.
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!"
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Video: President Trump, at a Make America Great Again rally in Orlando, announced June 18 the official launch of his 2020 reelection campaign. (The Washington Post)
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Video: Thousands of supporters formed lines outside of the Amway Center in Orlando ahead of President Trump's June 18 rally where he will officially announce his 2020 presidential campaign.(REF:gerbergj,REF:guildb/The Washington Post)
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Video: President Trump, at a Make America Great Again rally in Orlando, announced June 18 the official launch of his 2020 reelection campaign.(The Washington Post)
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WASHINGTON - Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration to be confirmed to the job permanently, President Trump said Tuesday, plunging the Pentagon into leadership upheaval for the second time in six months.
In a message on Twitter, Trump said that Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who has led the Pentagon on an acting basis since early this year, had "decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family."
Trump thanked Shanahan for his "outstanding service" and said that Mark Esper, who has served as Army secretary since 2017, would become his new acting Pentagon chief.
A former top lobbyist with Raytheon and U.S. Military Academy classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's, Esper served 25 years in the Army and the Virginia National Guard and was a deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. He was also national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., and legislative director to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R.-Neb.
Shanahan's last day in the Pentagon is expected to be Friday, but a U.S. official said it is possible Esper could replace him as acting secretary before then.
But it was uncertain whether Trump intends to nominate Esper to be confirmed in the job. Individuals familiar with the conversations said other people were also being discussed, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also has been considered previously, but it's unclear whether he would leave the Senate for the post.
Shanahan pulled himself out of the running Tuesday morning as media organizations including The Washington Post published reports shedding light for the first time on details of his contentious divorce, including a 2010 domestic abuse allegation and his role in an incident in which his son attacked his ex-wife with a baseball bat.
In a statement, Shanahan said it was "unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way in the course of this process."
Shanahan said he had decided "after significant reflection" to remove himself from the confirmation process and resign. "I would welcome the opportunity to be secretary of defense, but not at the expense of being a good father," he said.
Shanahan's decision upends what had been expected to be an imminent confirmation process, injecting a new element of uncertainty into the Pentagon's highest levels at a moment when officials are scrambling to retain a technological edge over China and respond to recent threats from Iran.
The turmoil atop the Pentagon comes amid a broader leadership vacuum across the Trump administration, where many of the political positions remain unfilled or occupied by people serving in an acting capacity.
In addition to the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Small Business Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Aviation Administration are also being run by individuals serving in acting capacities.
Several other positions, including White House chief of staff, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and United Nations ambassador, are filled by those functioning in an acting role.
When Shanahan joined the Trump administration as deputy defense secretary in 2017, he was seen as an experienced businessman who could oversee a massive military budget and advance reforms in acquisition, technology and space issues.
When Trump tapped him in late 2018 to become acting secretary after his predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned over differences with the president, Shanahan remained a relatively unknown figure outside the Pentagon.
As Pentagon chief, he faced a Washington establishment skeptical that he had the chops to oversee the world's most powerful military at a time of transformation. At times, he fueled those concerns by deferring to subordinates during congressional testimony or taking a back seat to other officials when publicly addressing international crises.
Critics faulted Shanahan for failing to stand up to the president on issues that many within the Pentagon view as overly political, including using the military budget to fund the president's border wall.
Even as Shanahan traveled the world, authorized military operations and met with his counterparts, his six-month tenure remained clouded by uncertainty about his fate.
During his first months in the job, speculation mounted about whether Trump would pick him to be confirmed. In May, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said he would be nominated. The announcement came just after the Pentagon's inspector general cleared him of wrongdoing in a probe related to his ties to Boeing, his former employer and a major defense contractor.
But even then the White House failed to formally nominate him, despite the fact he had initially been expected to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a confirmation hearing in mid-June.
Shanahan's decision to step aside appeared to have come together quickly in the space of a few days, even as a team of officials responsible for helping him prepare for his confirmation process predicted he would go forward.
When Shanahan met with Trump at the White House on Monday to discuss Iran, according to a defense official with knowledge of the matter, a potential decision to step aside did not come up. As late as Monday night, White House officials were telling reporters Shanahan would be confirmed.
On Tuesday morning, as additional media outlets prepared to publish stories about his family, Shanahan returned to the White House and told Trump he would withdraw, officials said. Trump tweeted the announcement shortly afterward from the Oval Office.
Senators from both political parties questioned why they did not have advance notice of the allegations and criticized the White House vetting process.
"I don't understand it," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "These names, once they are out there, before they get made public, there has been a level of vetting that has gone on - so it does cause you to wonder."
Speaking to reporters before departing for his reelection rally in Orlando, Florida, Trump said he did not ask Shanahan to withdraw his nomination and considered it a "a tough time" for him. Trump also defended his administration's vetting, calling it "very good."
"You take a look at our cabinet and our secretary; it's very good," Trump said. "We have a great vetting process, but this is something that came up a little bit over the last short period of time, and as you know, Pat was acting. Acting gives you much greater flexibility, a lot easier to do things. So that's the way it is. Too bad."
Two Republicans familiar with White House discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said Shanahan had hoped to soldier through the process but recognized after discussions with White House officials that a confirmation process would likely unspool his family's past.
The two Republicans said that Trump is now looking for a reliable, well-known nominee - someone who can be easily confirmed. The president wants to avoid drama and is being told by senators that he doesn't have capital to spend on a tough nomination fight, they said.
Potentially introducing a further complication to the situation, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act will not permit Esper to be the Pentagon chief nominee while holding the job of acting defense secretary, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general who has assisted in defense secretary confirmations, including Shanahan's.
He said Shanahan did not face the Vacancies Act as deputy defense secretary because under a different law organizing the U.S. military, he was allowed to fill the acting Pentagon chief position under succession guidelines.
Army officials did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Esper, saying he had "shown excellent judgment" as Army secretary, but urged the rapid confirmation of a nominee.
"For the sake of our national security, we need a confirmed Secretary of Defense - not just an acting - and I hope we can get to that point as quickly as possible," he said in a statement.
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said that Shanahan's departure means "we'll have another acting secretary of defense as the White House continues to struggle to fill key positions."
"At a time when we face critical national security and budgetary challenges, it is imperative that we have a confirmed civilian leader atop the Pentagon who is accountable to the president, Congress and the American people," he said.
The Army's No. 2 political appointee, Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy, previously was acting Army secretary until Esper took over and probably will step into that role again.
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The Washington Post's Joshua Dawsey, Robert Costa and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.