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Former President Donald Trump returned to campaign mode with a vengeance Saturday night, vowing at a rally in Ohio that Republicans would take back Congress, bemoaning his loss in last November’s election and retaliating against a GOP congressman who voted to impeach him.
Calling the event “the very first rally of the 2022 election,” Trump predicted next year's elections would result in "giant Republican majorities" in both chambers of Congress.
“We’re going to take back the House, and we're going to take back the Senate,” he promised the crowd at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, about a half-hour southwest of Cleveland.
“We have no choice,” he added.
The event marked Trump's return to the kind of mass rallies that fueled his White House campaigns. Since he left office in January, Trump’s public appearances have been limited to a handful of speeches before conservative and Republican groups.
Trump's political action committee, the Save America PAC, said the Ohio rally would be the first of many appearances in support of candidates and causes that further his agenda and the accomplishments of his administration. A second rally is planned for July 3 in Sarasota, Florida.
Political analysts said the events are designed to give Trump a platform to reassert himself as the leader of the Republican Party, promote his conspiracy theories about last November’s election – and just as important to Trump and his bruised ego – settle old scores.
“This is just the kickoff of the Donald Trump grievance tour,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron.
Trump insisted he's not trying to undermine democracy. "I'm the one that's trying to save American democracy," he said.
Banned from Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms that he used to communicate with his supporters, Trump reveled in the enthusiasm of the boisterous crowd.
"Are we having a good time?" Trump asked.
The crowd roared back right on cue.
Ohio rally recalls campaign events
Trump stepped onto the stage as a loudspeaker blared Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” – a favorite on his playlist during last year’s campaign for the White House – and tossed red “Make America Great Again” hats into the crowd.
In his 91-minute remarks, Trump lashed out at Democratic foes Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, ridiculed the "fake news" media and leveled unfounded accusations about his loss to Joe Biden in November's presidential election. Trump said he was "ashamed" of the U.S. Supreme Court for failing to back his claims of election fraud.
Though he made no announcement about his own plans, Trump hinted he might make another run for the White House in 2024. Claiming that he has already won the presidency twice, he said, "It’s possible we’ll have to win it a third time."
Though Trump lost the presidency to Biden, he carried Ohio by 8 percentage points. Political scientist Justin Buchler said he saw no particular relevance to the fact that Trump chose Ohio – historically a swing state in presidential elections – as the site of his first rally since leaving the White House.
What was more important, Buchler said, was that he appeared in Lorain County, which he won by 3 percentage points last November and where he was surrounded by people who are loyal to him.
“He is not campaigning outside of his comfort zone,” said Buchler, an associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “He’s not going to areas where he’s going to be surrounded by a hostile crowd. He is going to go to places where he can be surrounded by people who are his devoted followers.”
Trump supporters arrive early, praise former president
Supporters began arriving at the Lorain County Fairgrounds early Saturday afternoon, donning American flags and selling T-shirts that said, "Trump won." A cover band blared through the grounds as people lined up at food trucks and sipped water to stave off the heat.
Leslie Dodd drove to Wellington from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, with her son to attend. She said she hoped to hear good news from Trump and believes the GOP should follow his lead as candidates gear up for the 2022 and 2024 elections.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's still my president," Dodd said.
Edward X. Young, 61, of Brick Township, New Jersey, a horror movie actor, director and makeup artist, drove from his home Friday night and arrived at the Lorain County site 11 hours later.
“This is my 51st Trump rally,” Young said. The last one he said he attended was the rally in Washington on Jan. 6, when people broke into the U.S. Capitol. Young said he did not go into the Capitol.
“I’m very excited about this one. This is the return,” said Young, who likened the atmosphere to a rock 'n' roll concert.
Sandra Price, 57, of Walled Lake, Michigan, hoped Trump would say he has not given up on the 2020 election.
“I want to reelect the president,” said Price, who was attending her 19th Trump rally.
Price said she’s upset with GOP members who are not true to conservative principles. “Democrats stab me in the chest," she said. "Republicans stab me in the back."
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Trump chides Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to impeach him
Trump not only attacked Democrats, he also took aim at members of his own party, including Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a northeastern Ohio congressman who was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him on a charge of inciting the attack on the Capitol.
The Ohio Republican Party’s governing board voted in May to censure Gonzalez and called on him to resign. Weeks earlier, Trump hit back at Gonzalez by throwing his support to Max Miller, who is running against Gonzalez in next year’s GOP primary. Miller worked for Trump on the campaign trail and in the White House, and Saturday's rally was held in part to promote Miller's candidacy.
Miller, who joined Trump on stage, branded Gonzalez as "a sold-out, RINO (Republican in name only) foot soldier" and said his vote to impeach Trump was “a betrayal he can never turn back from and that he should have to answer to, day after day after day.”
Trump called Gonzalez "a grandstanding RINO" and "a sellout, a fake Republican and a disgrace to your state.” He praised Miller as "a trusted aide of mine" and said he played a role in the Trump administration's negotiations with North Korea.
Trump insisted that Gonzalez's impeachment vote is "not the reason I'm doing this." But, he added, "I just thought it was a character trait that was not so good.”
Gonzalez, who represents Ohio’s 16th Congressional District, is “in big trouble” politically, Cohen said.
“His vote for impeachment – albeit one that was extremely courageous and one that was done without taking politics into account – is one that has hurt him with his own political base,” Cohen said. “And it could cost him his seat.”
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Trump to visit Texas-Mexico border
Trump's Ohio rally came four days before he is scheduled to visit the U.S.-Mexican border June 30 with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
As he has done in the past, Trump attacked Biden's border policies during his remarks, arguing that his successor "deliberately and systematically" dismantled border security and allowed a flood of immigrants into the country illegally. He claimed Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to the border Friday "for one simple reason: because I announced I was going."
Though he’s no longer in office and is not a candidate for public office — at least not officially – Trump’s rally was part of an overall strategy to keep him in the public eye, Cohen said.
“He’s not going away,” he said. “He’s not leaving the political stage.”
Trump's rally showed he has no intentions of quitting politics anytime soon.
"Our movement is far from over," he said. "In fact, our fight has only just begun."
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: Haley BeMiller of the Columbus Dispatch and James Mackinnon of the Akron Beacon Journal.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump rally in Ohio Saturday a return to campaign-style events