Donald Trump has returned to the stage in predictable fashion as he launched a more active phase of his post presidency: criticising Covid expert Anthony Fauci, calling for China to pay reparations over the pandemic and denouncing the New York attorney general’s criminal investigation into his business dealings.
At a GOP convention in North Carolina on Saturday night, Trump was introduced by the state’s party chairman Michael Whatley as “our president”, a nod to Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through voter fraud, which Trump branded on Saturday “the crime of the century”.
His appearance had all the hallmarks of his signature campaign rallies, complete with a musical playlist heavy on Elton John.
Urging Republicans to support only Trump loyalists in next year’s midterm elections, Trump teased the prospect of another presidential bid of his own in 2024, but vowed first to join the campaign trail for those who share his values in next year’s fight for control of Congress.
“The survival of America depends on our ability to elect Republicans at every level starting with the midterms next year,” he said early in a rambling speech that lasted nearly an hour-and-a-half.
Some party leaders worry that a rise of pro-Trump candidates in the coming months could jeopardise the GOP’s fight for control of Congress in 2022. While Trump remains a dominant force within his party, he is deeply unpopular among key segments of the broader electorate. He lost the last election by 7 million votes after alienating Republican-leaning suburban voters across the country.
The former president joined wider Republican criticism of Fauci – the US’s leading infectious diseases official – for asking Americans to wear masks to guard against the virus and for at times being sceptical of a hotly contested theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
He called Fauci “not a great doctor but a great promoter” for his frequent television appearances. “But he’s been wrong on almost every issue and he was wrong on Wuhan and the lab also,” Trump said.
Trump’s own handling of the pandemic, in which nearly 600,000 people in the United States have died and he himself was infected, was a factor in his loss to president Joe Biden in 2020. He also called on China to pay $10tn in reparations to the US and the world for its own handling of the virus, and he said nations should cancel their debt to Beijing.
Trump said a criminal investigation launched by the New York attorney general’s office was “the ultimate fishing expedition” and the latest attempt by Democrats to bring him down after two impeachment sagas when he was president. “It’s been a five-year witch hunt, hoax after hoax,” said Trump. “They’ll never stop until November of 2024.”
New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, has been investigating whether the Trump Organization falsely reported property values to secure loans and obtain economic and tax benefits.
Trump’s speech to hundreds of Republican officials and activists was the opening appearance in what is expected to be a new phase of rallies and public events. Out of office for more than four months and banned from his preferred social media accounts, the former president hopes to use such events to elevate his diminished voice.
His advisers are already eyeing subsequent appearances in Ohio, Florida, Alabama and Georgia to help bolster midterm candidates and energise voters.
On Friday, Facebook decided to suspend his account for two years, after he incited supporters to attack the US Capitol in service of his lie that his defeat by Biden was the result of electoral fraud. At the end of the suspension period, Facebook said, it would work with experts to assess the risk to public safety posed by reinstating Trump’s account
In contrast to the mega rallies that filled sports arenas when Trump was president, on Saturday he faced a crowd that organisers estimated at 1,200 seated at dinner tables inside the Greenville convention centre. Many more followed along on internet streams.
The former president waited more than an hour to advance falsehoods about the 2020 election, which he described as “the crime of the century”.
Since leaving the White House, Trump has regularly made baseless claims that the last presidential election was stolen. The claims have triggered a wave of Republican-backed voting restrictions in state legislatures across the country, even though Trump’s cries of voting fraud have been refuted by dozens of judges, Republican governors and senior officials from his own administration.
Trump focused his early remarks on Biden’s White House, which he called “the most radical left-wing administration in history”. “As we gather tonight our country is being destroyed before our very eyes,” he said.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Ammar Moussa took a shot at Trump in a statement released ahead of his speech.
“More than 400,000 dead Americans, millions of jobs lost, and recklessly dangerous rhetoric is apparently not enough for Republicans to break with a loser president who cost them the White House, Senate, and House,” Moussa said.
Invited to the stage briefly, Trump daughter-in-law and North Carolina native Lara Trump announced she would not run for the Senate because of family obligations. “I am saying no for now, not no forever,” she said.
With Reuters and Associated Press