WELLINGTON, Ohio – Former President Donald J. Trump returned to the rally stage after nearly six months of absence on Saturday night, his first major public gathering since his January 6th Save America event that resulted in a deadly riot at the Capitol.
On Saturday, the same words – “Save America” - appeared behind Mr. Trump speaking to several thousand people at a fair in Wellington, Ohio, about 35 miles southwest of Cleveland.
He repeated known falsehoods about fraudulent 2020 votes. He attacked Republican officials for refusing to support his election results nullification efforts – including Ohio Rep. Anthony E. Gonzalez, who voted for Mr. Trump’s impeachment and whose main challenger Max Miller was the reason for Mr. Trump’s visit. The former president praised Mr. Miller when they appeared on stage together.
Mr Trump remains the most powerful figure in the Republican Party, with large numbers of GOP lawmakers parroting his lies about a stolen 2020 election and fearful of crossing him, and many in the party waiting to see him again for the White House running for office in 2024.
However, in the audience and on stage, the Ohio scene on Saturday reflected how weakened Mr Trump has become in his post-presidency and how dependent he is on a smaller group of allies and supporters who have embraced his alternate reality than their own . One of the headliners for the event was Georgia MP Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican who promoted QAnon’s conspiracy theory.
Mr Trump’s speech – reserved, degressive, and nearly 90 minutes long – sometimes fell flat in an otherwise enthusiastic audience. Numerous people abandoned him prematurely as he skipped from topic to topic – immigration, Israel, spokeswoman Nancy Pelosis’ mask.
“Do you miss me?” asked Mr. Trump in one of his biggest lines of applause. “You miss me,” he explained.
In interviews, many in the crowd expressed their unwavering belief in Mr Trump’s election rigging and indulged in his rewriting of the story of the mob attack on the Capitol.
Tony Buscemi, 61, a small business owner from West Bloomfield, Michigan who was standing with his daughter Natalie in the sun-kissed field Mr. Trump spoke in, said he was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and he falsely claimed it was been a “mostly peaceful” gathering.
“People prayed. People were singing, ”said Buscemi, adding that he might have gone into the building himself if his daughter hadn’t convinced him it was a bad idea. “There was no riot,” he insisted. “I didn’t see anything wrong with that.”
Polls suggest that most Republicans are skeptical of President Biden’s election victory. 36 percent of Republicans said in a poll published Monday by Monmouth University that Mr Biden won the election fairly, while 57 percent said his victory was the result of fraud.
Still, there is evidence that Mr Trump’s influence on Republican voters is diminishing – if only marginally.
In late April, 44 percent of Republicans and GOP-centric independents said they support Trump more than the party itself in a poll conducted by NBC News. A slightly higher proportion, 50 percent, said they were more likely to support the party.
It was the first time since NBC poll researchers asked the question in early 2019 that more than half of Republicans said they support the party more than the man.
Giovanni Russonello contributed to the reporting.