Trump's 'exoneration' tour: What to Watch

LAURIE KELLMAN
FILE - In this March 28, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. Political nerds, start your streaming devices. You’ve got a big Saturday night of programming ahead. President Donald Trump rolls out his “complete and total exoneration” tour in battleground Wisconsin, his first campaign rally since the release of the Mueller report and an early look at his 2020 re-election strategy.(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Political nerds, start your streaming devices. You've got a big Saturday night of programming ahead.

First, President Donald Trump rolls out his "complete and total exoneration" tour in battleground Wisconsin, his first campaign rally since the release of the Mueller report and an early look at his 2020 re-election strategy.

Next up is the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which strained what remained of civility between the press corps and the administration a year ago and now is designed to be a decidedly more scholarly affair.

"Boring" is how Trump describes it, one reason why he's never attended the event as president. But the dinner is apparently interesting — and politically profitable — enough for Trump that he's mocked it from the rally pulpit the past two years.

Here's a look at what to watch from Trump's rally at 8 p.m. EDT and the correspondents' dinner at 9:30 p.m. EDT, both expected to be carried by C-SPAN:

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THE STATE OF THINGS

On the night of the press dinner in 2017, Trump mused from a rally stage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that he might consider attending the event the next year. It was not to be.

Ditto in 2018, from the dais in Michigan.

But Trump said no thanks for the third time.

"The dinner is so boring and so negative that we're going to hold a very positive rally instead," he said earlier this month. Trump also told members of his administration not to attend.

"Boring" isn't what the correspondents' association is aiming for. But the organizers are shifting the tone this year after a sharply anti-Trump comic, Michelle Wolf, delivered a performance last time that some thought was too harsh against White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who was seated onstage at the time.

Instead, the featured speaker will be historian Ron Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Chernow, like many of his fellow historians, strongly opposed Trump's candidacy in 2016 and labeled him a "demagogue."

Association President Olivier Knox said in a statement: "We're looking forward to an enjoyable evening of celebrating the First Amendment and great journalists past, present, and future."

___

'A BIG ONE'

The release of the redacted Mueller report seemed to have infused Trump, at first, with triumph. He declared America "the greatest place on Earth," and tweeted: "No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION." He promised the Saturday rally in Wisconsin would be "a big one" and began testing messages and slogans in a possible preview for the rest of his 2020 re-election bid.

The special counsel found no evidence that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. But it did reveal details of the president's efforts to thwart the investigation, fire Mueller and get other people to lie for him. Democrats are agitating for more investigations and a few want to begin impeachment proceedings. Trump vowed to not let any aides testify to Congress. He turned some of his anger on The New York Times, suggesting they "get down on their knees & beg forgiveness."

___

POST-MUELLER MESSAGE

Trump's darker tone signals an approach to the rally that's different from the "positive" plans he had described. Trump has issued clues to his approach all week, including a trimmed-for-Twitter version of the Mueller report's findings:

"NO C OR O!" That's shorthand for "no collusion or obstruction." In fact, Mueller did not make a recommendation on obstruction, instead laying out what many Democrats see as a road map of evidence and anecdotes to build their own case.

Look, too, for Trump to describe the Mueller investigation as an attempt to destabilize the administration. On Friday, speaking to the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis, Trump said his political enemies "tried for a coup, didn't work out so well. And I didn't need a gun for that one, did I?"

The friendly audience applauded the quip, but Trump wasn't done. He said he's seen "corruption at the highest levels. A disgrace. Spying. Surveillance trying for an overthrow."

The 2020 presidential campaign — and his need to energize his core supporters and convince wobblers to vote for him again — is very much on his mind.

"You better get out there and vote," he told the NRA. "It seems like it's a long ways away. It's not."

___

WHY WISCONSIN (and MICHIGAN)?

The numbers tell the story of how Trump's rally at the Resch Center in Green Bay is designed to reach two states that he swiped for Republicans in 2016 after solid Democratic wins since the Reagan Administration.

In Wisconsin, Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percentage point. But the rally is in Brown County, which Trump won by more than 10 percentage points.

And the Green Bay media market stretches to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Trump won by tenths of a percentage point.

The Resch Center seats as many as 10,500 people, according to its website, creating the potential for the crowded visual Trump loves.

___

BERNIE, TROLLING

Sen. Bernie Sanders isn't expected to campaign in Wisconsin on Saturday, his campaign says. But his supporters, like other Democrats in the race, are determined not to take the state for granted as many believe Clinton did.

Earlier in the week, Sanders supporters took out a front-page ad that ran in Friday's Green Bay Press-Gazette that says Trump "lied to Wisconsin voters" about bringing back jobs amid layoffs at big companies.

The ad also promotes 52 Sanders campaign "organizing events" around the state on the day Trump speaks.

___

Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Juana Summers contributed to this report.

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Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com//APLaurieKellman

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