WASHINGTON – After more than three months behind closed doors, Donald Trump returned to the political stage Saturday by attacking Democrats and Republican critics while sweeping aside his own political problems, including social media bans and criminal investigations.
“It’s a disgrace what’s happening to our country,” Trump told delegates to the North Carolina Republican Party state convention in a rambling 85-minute speech that touched on an array of political themes and grievances.
The ex-president re-emerged in public after months of political drama that included the decision by congressional allies to remove Trump critic Liz Cheney from her House GOP leadership position; stepped-up investigations by prosecutors in Georgia as well as New York; and the decisions by Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to extend their bans on Trump over his incendiary rhetoric.
Citing an ongoing investigation of his business practices in New York state, Trump accused prosecutors of trying to hurt him politically. He also said decisions by Facebook and other companies to keep him off social media are an “unfair” attempt to silence him and his supporters.
“They want to silence you,” Trump said at one point during his speech in Greenville, North Carolina.
In his first televised speech since late February, Trump issued standard attacks on President Joe Biden and “radical Democrats,” while repeating baseless claims of “voter fraud” in his 2020 election loss. Trump pledged to help Republicans win back Congress in the 2020 elections and suggested he might run again for president himself in 2024.
Republicans in North Carolina, which Trump carried in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, gave the ex-president a warm reception.
The question is how well his continuing protests of the 2020 election and his complaint-filled rhetoric will be seen by independents and Republicans who want to see the party move past the fractious ex-president.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and North Carolina native who has worked many political races in the state, said Trump’s message plays well with true believers but may not appeal to other Republicans and voters in general.
“There’s nothing new here,” Heye said. “We’ve all heard this song before.”
Surprise endorsement in 2022 Senate race
This was Trump’s first televised speech since his Feb. 28 appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida. He used that occasion to threaten Republicans who criticized him over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in which fervent Trump supporters tried to stop the counting of electoral votes showing that Biden won.
Trump wasn’t as specific about Republican opponents in North Carolina, but did make disparaging comments in general about party members he considers disloyal.
Looking ahead to 2022, Trump made a surprise endorsement in a North Carolina race for a U.S. Senate seat. He said he would back U.S. Rep. Ted Budd over other Republicans seeking the party’s nomination, an endorsement he made after his daughter-in-law, North Carolina native Lara Trump, confirmed to the crowd she would not run for the job herself.
The winner will replace one of Trump’s frequent targets, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., one of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict him for inciting the Jan. 6 riot. The full Senate acquitted Trump because prosecutors could not muster the two-thirds vote necessary for conviction.
The ex-president also used his North Carolina speech to defend his administration and attack its critics, including those in the media.
In a lengthy riff, Trump also went after government infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, reviving their dispute over how the Trump administration should have confronted the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump also blasted China, saying it should pay $10 trillion in “reparations” over the outbreak of the virus.
In the more than three months since his CPAC speech, politician tensions have heightened around Trump.
There are signs that the prosecutors in New York and Georgia are stepping up their investigations of the former president.
The New York probe involves past financial dealings by the Trump Organization. Prosecutors in Georgia are looking at Trump’s complaints to state officials, urging them to look for alleged fraud in the state’s presidential election.
Last weekend, supporters at a pro-Trump conference in Dallas talked openly of a “coup” against the current government.
Attorney Sidney Powell, who represented Trump during parts of his election protest late last year, told a cheering crowd that Trump could soon be “reinstated” as president. That is legally impossible, though Trump, according to a New York Times tweet, “has been telling a number of people he’s in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated by August.”
Trump has not commented publicly on this kind of talk, but allies said he is not fomenting a coup and does not anticipate regaining office.
“As far as I know, there are no plans for Donald Trump to be in the White House in August,” said Lara Trump, speaking on Fox News this week. “Maybe there’s something I don’t know.”
In the three months since his last public appearance, Trump’s hold on the Republican party leadership has in many ways strengthened.
Last month, his allies forced the removal of Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, from her House GOP congressional leadership position over her repeated criticisms of Trump.
Cheney, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection, said Trump’s continuing false claims about a “stolen” election could trigger more violence.
Republican opponents said Trump’s involvement in party primaries and the general election will wind up hurting a variety of GOP candidates.
Democratic Party spokesperson Ammar Moussa said Republicans refuse to break with “a loser president who cost them the White House, Senate, and House.” He predicted that voters in 2022 and 2024 will “remember what Republican control of Washington looked like: massive giveaways for corporations and incompetence that exacerbated the worst pandemic in 100 years.”
As he spoke in North Carolina, Trump remains banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. He began a blog last month, but has already shut it down after weeks of low traffic.
Since the bans were imposed after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump has increasingly relied on written statements issued through his political action committee called “Save America.”
Speeches behind closed doors
Trump has given speeches in private these past three months, including highly publicized remarks at an April conference of major Republican donors who gathered in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump has also given television interviews.
Audio and video have leaked out from a few of Trump’s private appearances, including optimistic claims about continuing election protests in states that Biden won narrowly.
In written statements and interviews, Trump has commented frequently about an ongoing “audit” of results in Arizona, a Republican-driven project that involves hand recounting nearly 2.1 million ballots from Maricopa County. It is not expected to alter Biden’s victory in the state.
Trump has also made public comments about pending election complaints in pivotal states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and New Hampshire, comments he echoed in his remarks in North Carolina.
Initially, the North Carolina Republican Party said Trump’s convention speech would be closed to the press. Last week, at Trump’s behest, the Tar Heel GOP decided to open up the Trump event.
Expect to see more of Trump in the coming weeks.
Trump has told television interviewers that he is planning to resume mass political rallies soon in big political states like Florida and Ohio. He is also expected to address another meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference to be held in July in Dallas.