Cheers and Distortions: Trump Feeds on Raucous Rallies as Trial Disrupts Run

Sara Stathas for The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Wednesday in Waukesha, Wis.

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Donald Trump’s words were almost exactly the same, but the change of scenery made all the difference.

On Tuesday, he spoke as a criminal defendant: in a dingy, echoing courthouse hallway, behind a metal barricade, flanked by a grim-faced lawyer, speaking to a handful of reporters and a single TV camera.

On Wednesday, he was the presumptive Republican nominee: backed by American flags, greeted as a hero by thousands of fans who chanted his name. This time, when Trump railed against the judge and prosecutors, denied any wrongdoing and claimed the trial was helping his poll numbers, the crowd booed and laughed and cheered.

“You know, I have come here today from New York City, where I’m being forced to sit for days on end in a kangaroo courtroom,” he said Wednesday at the second of two campaign stops, in Freeland, Mich. “They do it to try and take your powers away, try and take your candidate away.”

He added pointedly: “We got to get them out.”

Trump’s return to campaigning for the first time since the trial began offered him a chance, if only for a day, to escape the cold (at times literally) realities of the courtroom and bask in the triumphant, defiant strength he projects for his supporters. For their part, rallygoers said they’re experiencing the trial through the prism of pro-Trump media, assured that the case was unfounded and could be backfiring. Like Trump, they described the proceedings in at times distorted or exaggerated terms.

“That’s why I’m here, is because they don’t let him campaign, it’s his only day off,” said Steven Franzen, who drove here from McHenry, Ill., and didn’t make it inside the expo center, whose capacity was capped at 1,200. “The less they see of him the more they want him, people do. It has a reverse effect.”

Trump’s aides have seethed at how the court calendar splits the week, stranding Wednesday in the middle, believing the judge did so to make it harder for Trump to campaign, even though he has consistently scheduled his trials that way. Trump himself has struggled with the disruption to his routine of daily golf and being required to sit through technical and sometimes tedious proceedings without his phone, according to people close to him.

In remarks outside the courtroom, he has frequently complained about the temperature and being kept away from campaigning in swing states. In those remarks and social media posts, he has protested the order from Justice Juan Merchan that prohibits Trump from attacking witnesses in the case. Such gag orders are common in criminal cases, and on Tuesday Merchan fined Trump for nine violations.

“I’m not even supposed to be, I would say, talking to you, because he gagged me,” Trump said in Michigan on Wednesday. “I have a relationship with the people, and I explain it to them, and they understand it’s a scam.”

Trump has routinely told his supporters he was “being indicted for you, thank you very much,” often sounding sarcastic. But when he recited the line here on Tuesday, to thundering applause, he sounded like he meant it.

“I greatly appreciate it,” he said.

Later, in Michigan, feeding off the crowd’s energy, Trump put a rosier spin on his predicament while reasserting his claim, without evidence, that the four criminal cases against him are a coordinated political strike against his candidacy and the MAGA movement he champions.

“If I didn’t run or if I came in fourth, I’d have no problem right now,” he said. “I’d be in a beautiful someplace. But you know what, honestly? Look at this crowd. I’d rather be with you.”

While that theme unquestionably helped Trump consolidate Republican support in the primary, the effect on November’s election is less clear, with wide-open possibilities for how the trial could proceed and how voters will perceive it.

For now, his supporters share Trump’s confidence that the trial would rebound to his benefit by providing free publicity and portraying him as a victim.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, people feel they’re being persecuted,” Matthew Bocklund, the former chairman of the St. Croix Republican Party, said at the speech here. “They see one man up there being persecuted, and Trump has transcended the presidency and he has now become them. So just like he says, he always says, well, I’m on trial for you.”

Even a rare Democrat who attended the Michigan rally just to hear Trump out said she was concerned the trial would boost his public support. “I don’t know why people feel like we’re after the man,” said Melinda Plaugher, of Midland, Mich., who wore a Biden shirt to the rally and voted for Nikki Haley in the Republican primary. “I worry about our country and I worry about his policies and his unfriendliness and his divisiveness.”

Trump appeared to relish Wednesday’s doubleheader, speaking for more than an hour at both stops. The prepared remarks heavily emphasized economics, but Trump frequently meandered and interrupted his text with playful asides – when reciting grocery prices, he added, “I love chicken.” In both speeches, he went on extended unscripted defenses of his support for letting state lawmakers set their own abortion regulations instead of a federal ban.

“So far I have been 92 percent off teleprompter and 8 percent on teleprompter,” he said at one point, exaggerating, to cheers. “But isn’t it nice to have a president who doesn’t need a teleprompter?” At another point he stepped out from behind the lectern to readjust a teleprompter that had blown askew in the wind.

He swiped at Haley, who has not endorsed him, and took exception to being called unpopular. Trump’s approval and favorability ratings have never been net positive. In last week’s GOP primary in the crucial battleground of Pennsylvania, Trump won 84 percent of the vote, while 17 percent voted for Haley, who dropped out in March.

He polled the crowd on which nickname to use to disparage President Biden. He vilified Palestinian refugees as bringing “jihad” and vowed to reimpose a ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries, and he praised New York police who cleared protesters from a Columbia University building.

And as he has often done, Trump misrepresented economic data to compare his record to Biden’s.

He baselessly asserted that “almost all” job growth was for undocumented immigrants. (It is true that job growth is higher among foreign-born workers since the pandemic because more of the native-born population is retiring.) He said a record 73 percent of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck, and the campaign provided a survey as support. But Federal Reserve data shows more than half of Americans have at least three months of savings available, the third-highest level on record, according to Matt Darling, an economic policy expert at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank.

He falsely suggested new manufacturing jobs hit zero under Biden for the first time ever. Trump bragged that the stock market hit record levels during his presidency, though the indexes rose higher since. Without evidence, he accused employment and economic figures of being “fake,” which Michael Strain, an economist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, called “a reckless and irresponsible thing to say.”

Trump said he would refuse to spend money under Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act, deliberately defying a 1974 law that requires the executive branch to follow congressional funding decisions.

Trump maintained that when he was president he could have prosecuted his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, and he has said if he wins in November he will assign prosecutors to investigate Biden’s family.

“The ultimate verdict on this travesty will not come in the courtroom. It will come at the ballot box,” Trump said in Michigan. “And the American people are going to find Crooked Joe Biden guilty of trying to destroy our country.”