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Sunday, December 06, 2020

At Rally for Georgia Senators, Trump Focuses on His Own Grievances

At Rally for Georgia Senators, Trump Focuses on His Own Grievances

The president falsely claimed the election was rigged and that he had won. Earlier, he urged Georgia’s governor to call a special legislative session to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state.

President Trump at a rally in Valdosta, Ga., on Saturday.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

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

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

Mr. Trump lost this state by just under 12,000 votes to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., 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,” Mr. 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 an 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 of 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 Mr. Kemp’s family.

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

At the rally, Mr. Trump amplified the critique he had been making of Mr. 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 Mr. Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the two Georgia Republicans Mr. Trump has been demanding abet his effort to overturn Georgia’s results.

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

Mr. Trump with Senator Kelly Loeffler, who is engaged in a runoff election.Mr. Trump said a few words about that election but kept the focus on the results of the presidential election.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

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 Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler to the stage for brief remarks. Mr. 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.

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

With Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump said.

The president’s willingness to campaign Saturday night 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 Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue. But aides worried, presciently, in the days leading to the appearance that he would go off script and attack Mr. Kemp, who has become the primary target of Mr. Trump’s Twitter vitriol.

Hoping to pacify Mr. Trump after Saturday’s phone call, Mr. 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 Mr. Kemp’s office has also said the governor does not have the power to unilaterally order a signature audit.

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

Before Mr. 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 Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue both addressed the audience well before Air Force One touched down on a mild late autumn night.

During a speech by Ms. Loeffler, who addressed the crowd nearly two hours before Mr. Trump spoke, the “Stop the steal” chant broke out in the audience — in the cadence of the familiar “Lock her up” chants that were popular during Mr. Trump’s first run.

Ms. Loeffler sought to redirect the crowd’s energy to the runoff elections and away from the president’s attempts to subvert the election results.

“You’re going to vote, right?” she said. “If you vote, we will win. If you don’t, we will lose America and what it’s founded on.”

But as Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” blared in advance of Mr. Trump’s appearance, it was far from clear whom the crowd was more intent on directing its hostility toward — Democrats or the Georgia Republicans the president is scapegoating for his loss in the state.

And outside the event, there were few indicators that the purpose of the rally was to elect Georgia’s two Republican senators. Trump signs were ubiquitous, and the merchandisers outside were selling only Trump gear.

The challenge for Republicans was evident in remarks from Mr. Perdue, who veered between encouraging the thousands in attendance to vote in the upcoming runoff and defending Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

At Rally for Georgia Senators, Trump Focuses on His Own Grievances

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