At rally for Georgia Senators, Trump focuses on his own grievances

By Jonathan Martin and Astead W. Herndon

VALDOSTA, Ga. — One month before a pair of Georgia runoffs that will determine the Senate majority, President Donald Trump used a rally for the two Republican senators Saturday (5) to complain about his own loss last month, insisting he would still prevail and, with notably less ardour, encouraging voters here to elect the two lawmakers.

Taking the stage for his first rally as a lame duck president, Trump immediately, and falsely, claimed victory in the presidential race. “You know we won Georgia, just so you understand,” he said.

Trump lost this state by just under 12,000 voters to President-elect Joe Biden, who won the White House with 306 electoral votes. But the president has persisted in his baseless claims that the final outcome remains in doubt.

“They cheated and rigged our presidential election, but we’ll still win,” Trump said, offering no evidence but nonetheless prompting about 10,000 supporters gathered on the tarmac at a regional airport to chant, “Stop the Steal!”

Speaking for one hour and 40 minutes, the president did read a series of scripted lines about the two Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, and repeatedly urged his supporters in Georgia to vote next month, even mentioning the deadlines for the mail-in ballots he has so often scorned.

Yet he embedded those dutiful remarks of support in a deep thicket of conspiracy-mongering about his defeat and even aired a lengthy montage of video clips from the conservative news outlets Newsmax and One America News Network, which also depicted a sinister plot of electoral theft.

Before he arrived in Valdosta, the president made no attempt to disguise his central priority as it relates to Georgia: overturning his loss in the state. He began the day with a telephone call with Gov. Brian Kemp, ostensibly to offer his condolences to the governor about the death in a car accident of a young man who was close to Kemp’s family.

But in truth, Trump used the call to urge Kemp, a Republican, to call the state legislature into session so the GOP majorities could appoint new electors who would subvert the will of the state’s voters when the Electoral College meets Dec. 14. He has also called on Kemp to order an audit of signatures on ballots.

At the rally, Trump amplified the critique he had been making of Kemp much of the day on Twitter, all but demanding that the governor overturn the will of the voters for him. “Your governor could stop it very easily if he knew what the hell he was doing,” the president said. “Stop it very easily.”

The crowd booed when he invoked Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the two Georgia Republicans that Trump has been demanding to abet his effort to overturn Georgia’s results.

And they cheered when he turned to Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican and Trump loyalist, and suggested he challenge Kemp in a gubernatorial primary in 2022.

The president called the January races “the most important congressional runoff probably in American history” and lashed the Democratic nominees, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, as “far-left liberals.”

But he didn’t unspool the most biting attacks on them until about an hour into his remarks, and it was later still that he brought Perdue and Loeffler to the stage for brief remarks. Perdue was nearly drowned out by the audience, which showered him with a “Fight for Trump” chant that only grew louder when the two candidates handed the microphone back to the president. The president’s supporters will not tolerate anything less than total fealty toward him.

Trump’s persistent lament about what he described as the “rigged” election illustrated the quandary for Republicans.

With Trump sowing distrust in Georgia’s voting system, railing against the vote-counting machines the state used and falsely asserting that mail-in ballots were rife with fraud, he’s giving Republicans in the state reason to question both voting by mail and in-person voting.

If that prompts even a modest number of Republicans to sit out the Senate runoffs, especially in rural areas where Trump’s support is strongest, it could be enough to alter the electoral math in the evenly divided state and tip the races to the Democrats.

The president repeatedly sought to encourage Georgians to participate in the runoffs in the same breaths in which he railed against his own loss, offering a jarring, two-speeches-in-one presentation. “You got to get out and vote,” he said just moments after venting that Republicans were purportedly “not nearly as vicious” as Democrats when it came to stealing elections.

In Valdosta, 250 miles south of Atlanta, supporters of the president began arriving by noon for the evening rally. Many of them had crossed the nearby state line from Florida and thus could not vote in the Senate races.

The music, the red-white-and-blue stagecraft and Trump’s heavily anticipated arrival were all familiar. But he showed little joy, and much of his speech was dedicated to nursing his grievances and was often reminiscent of the rambling, misinformation-filled, 45-minute video he delivered from the White House earlier in the week.

“I got more votes than any sitting president in history,” Trump said.

The president’s willingness to campaign Saturday in heavily conservative South Georgia — far from the Atlanta-area voters who rejected him last month — heartened Republican officials, who have been lobbying him to intervene in the runoffs in support of Loeffler and Perdue. But aides worried, presciently, in the days leading to the appearance that he would go off script and attack Kemp, who has become the primary target of Trump’s Twitter vitriol.

Hoping to pacify Trump after Saturday’s phone call, Kemp noted on Twitter that he had already called for an audit of the signatures on mail ballots “to restore confidence in our election process.” But Kemp’s office has also said the governor does not have the power to unilaterally order a signature audit.

Kemp did not attend the rally Saturday because of the death of the family friend.

Before Trump landed in Valdosta, Republicans took pains to emphasize the task at hand: the January runoffs. A mammoth video screen directed attendees to “Request Your Absentee Ballot Right Now!” and directed them to the website to do so. And Loeffler and Perdue both addressed the audience well before Air Force One touched down.

The challenge for Republicans was evident in remarks from Perdue, who veered between encouraging the thousands in attendance to vote in the upcoming runoff and defending Trump’s efforts to advance his claims of fraud.

“I’m going to fight for this president until he gets every ballot counted correctly and every illegal ballot thrown out,” Perdue said.

At the same time, he framed January’s runoffs as a final chance for Republicans to issue a check against a Democratic administration.

“If we win Georgia, we save America,” he said. “And thanks to you, we’ll make sure the road to socialism never goes through the state of Georgia.”

Many in the audience had not accepted that Biden would be the next president.

Jason Kresckey, who attended the rally with his wife, said he wanted to show support for the president.

Donald Trump’s not going away,” he said. “And that whole movement that he created was a movement that inspired a certain population of people. I just don’t think that feeling is going anywhere soon.”

-New York Times



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