ORLANDO, Fla. — It was everything Donald Trump wanted, and so much more.
The optics-obsessed president was greeted by thousands of adoring supporters when he arrived here on Tuesday to kick off his bid for a second term. In lieu of a red carpet, a sea of red, white and camouflage hats provided the backdrop for his first official campaign rally of the 2020 cycle.
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As soon as Trump took the stage in his signature red tie, the crowd seemed pleased to have waited. They greeted him with “USA” chants as he recalled the “movement” he started four years ago.
“It turned out to be more than just a great political campaign. It turned out to be a great political movement because of you,” the president said, echoing the same nationalist message that became a staple of his first presidential run. “It’s a movement made up of people … who believe that a nation must care for its own citizens first.”
Fans camped out since dusk on Monday to secure a spot inside the 20,000-seat Amway Center. They began chanting familiar slogans as anticipation built for the evening’s main act and familiar characters took the stage. Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., riled up the crowd with a series of attacks against Joe Biden, a telling sign that his father views the former vice president as his likeliest opponent. Vice President Mike Pence promised the crowd that four more years “means more jobs, more judges … and at least four more years to drain the swamp.”
Trump picked up where his vice president left off as he took the mic, ticking through the items he can accomplish if granted another term and highlighting what he’s done so far. He talked about passing a criminal justice bill and healthcare reforms for veterans, doubling the child tax credit for American families and confronting the opioid crisis.
“Together we’re breaking the most sacred rule of Washington politics: We are keeping our promises to the American people,” he said.
But the president couldn’t help but focus on the trials of his first White House bid, too — time he might have otherwise spent targeting his current Democratic opponents.
In one particular riff about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his 2016 rival, the president said she received favorable treatment during the course of an investigation into her private email server.
“If I deleted one email, like a love note to Melania, it’s the electric chair for Trump,” he said. Trump later added that the 2020 Democratic field, like Clinton, wants to “splinter us into factions and tribes,” reminding the audience that she once labeled his supporters “deplorables.”
Trump cited many of the same political enemies Tuesday night that he ran against last time, grumbling about “Washington insiders” and “career politicians.” But he identified new foils, as well: Democratic congressional investigators, special counsel Robert Mueller, and the “radical socialism” he claims his political opponents have enthusiastically embraced.
“They’ve been afflicted with an ideological sickness,” Trump said of Democrats, attracting deafening applause as he affirmed that “America is not a socialist country.”
“Republicans do not believe in socialism. We believe in freedom,” he added.
Trump’s re-election launch — with an all-day tailgate party beforehand and a festival-like feel — borrowed a key ingredient from the unorthodox announcement speech he delivered four years ago: Nothing about it was normal, but it was a captivating show.
Frank Giannazzo, 57, a Marine Corps veteran from Davenport, Fla., compared the president’s re-election launch to a rock ‘n’ roll concert even before its star took the stage.
“Look at this. When is the last time you saw any candidate do something like this?” he said, gesturing at the crowd as “Eye of the Tiger” played overhead in the lead-up to Trump’s appearance.
The president leaned into the trappings of incumbency as soon as he arrived in Orlando on Tuesday. A presidential motorcade zig-zagged through downtown as he made his way to the arena, where Pence and the Trump family entertained the crowd. And when the president finally took the stage, he underscored a series of accomplishments that aides and allies believe are enough to win him another four years in the White House next November.
“The days of stealing American jobs and American companies, American ideas and wealth —those days are over,” Trump boldly declared.
He argued that the economy was booming thanks to his administration’s deregulatory agenda and the GOP-led tax cuts; that undocumented immigration was finally being confronted thanks to his forceful approach and negotiations with Mexico; and that America was respected again by its allies and adversaries because of his no-nonsense attitude toward foreign leaders.
“We’ve made America great again, but how do you give up the number one theme, logo, statement in politics? There’s a new one that really works, and that’s called ‘Keep America Great,’” Trump said, encouraging his supporters to embrace the new slogan.
But the president’s 2020 launch happens to come at another chaotic point in his administration.
In a week, the White House will be without a press secretary who can help steer his message — one of several vacancies that will leave the administration handicapped as the president heads into a grueling election cycle. Trump bid the outgoing press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a special farewell at Tuesday’s rally, teasing her from the stage about her own political ambitions. (Sanders is rumored to be considering a gubernatorial run in her home state of Arkansas in 2022).
Just hours before jetting off to Orlando, Trump also announced that his nominee for defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, had decided to forgo the position after news broke that the FBI was examining a domestic violence episode that he and his ex-wife were said to have been involved in. At least five cabinet agencies are currently being led by acting officials, an issue that has dogged the Trump administration since its earliest days.
Beyond the problems faced by his administration, there are signs that Trump is underperforming in the states he will need to win in 2020 — a reality that his aides seem to realize but that the president has yet to recognize himself. Internal polls conducted in March that leaked out of the Trump campaign last week found him trailing his potential Democratic opponents in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida — a trifecta of states he can hardly afford to lose. Trump dismissed the polls as “fake” and parted ways with the companies that produced them.
“The country is too complex to call 100 people and ask them what they think,” Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, told CBS News ahead of Tuesday’s rally.
Though campaign officials insist the president’s numbers have improved in battleground states since March — one official claimed that Trump was now leading Biden in each state — the political landscape that Trump is facing has not.
The president repeated his “no collusion” refrain Tuesday night, claiming that the Mueller report on Russian election interference was a “win” for him, even as House Democrats tighten their grip on multiple congressional investigations into his actions before and after becoming president.
On Wednesday, for instance, former White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of the first members of Trump’s inner circle, will testify behind closed doors before the House Judiciary Committee about her time in the White House. Democrats on the panel aresaidto be looking closely at other ex-Trump aides and advisers whom they could bring in as witnesses without facing claims of executive privilege by the White House.
Campaign officials went into Tuesday viewing it as an opportunity to press the reset button and refocus the attention of Trump’s supporters on all the items he can check off his to-do list if given a chance to remain in Washington. It was an event tailor-made for the president’s base, but one that they hoped would grab the attention of other suburban and swing voters, too.
Trump won 46 percent of the national vote in 2016 and has struggled to broaden his base since. At the same time, opposition to him has steadily increased in recent months. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that a combined 52 percent of Americans want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against the president, continue investigating him and his administration, or officially censure him on Capitol Hill.
Democratic presidential hopefuls, meanwhile, are likely to focus most of their criticisms on Trump when they begin their primary debates next week, and Tuesday provided exactly the kind of material they were hoping for: dubious facts and figures from the incumbent president about everything from Obamacare and immigration to abortion and unemployment, and repeated promises to further advance his agenda.
Entering the 2016 race, Trump told a crowd of paid spectators, Trump Tower residents and curious reporters that, if elected president, he would end radical Islamic terrorism, hold China accountable for unfair trade practices, bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., restore bipartisanship to Washington, protect the Second Amendment, end Common Core, rebuild the country’s infrastructure and replace Obamacare.
On Tuesday night, he assured his supporters that he had already fulfilled many of those promises and could do even more if they delivered him four more years. He gave them a show they’ll talk about for weeks and one that he will try to replicate again and again over the next 17 months — a ride that many expect to be every bit as unpredictable as 2016, but the same in so many other ways.
“We are one movement, one people, one family and one glorious nation under God. And together we will make America wealthy again, we will make America strong again, we will make America safe again and we will make America great again,” Trump said, exiting the stage to the same Rolling Stones tune that has closed so many of his rallies since 2016.
“You can’t always get what you want,” the lyrics boomed. It was a reminder to the crowd that Trump got exactly what he wanted four years ago — the most powerful job in the world — and now he’s after it again.