Trump reverts to campaign mode in Florida rally, his first as president

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive for a rally at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne on Saturday.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive for a rally at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne on Saturday. AP

President Donald Trump reprised his favorite role — that of a rousing campaigner — on Saturday, holding a massive rally that offered him a respite from the tribulations of his first four weeks in the White House as he tried to regain control of his political message.

Faced with a series of early setbacks, including the firing of his national security adviser, the rejection by the courts of his immigration ban and low approval ratings, Trump reverted to the comfort of his candidate stump speech. To an ecstatic crowd of 9,000 at an Orlando-Melbourne International Airport hangar, Trump repeated his campaign promises, in some cases word for word — making it seem for a moment as though the months on the calendar had somehow flipped back to 2016.

Now, however, the Trump of 2017 stood behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal.

“I’m here because I want to be among my friends and among the people,” he declared.

Holding a rally less than a month after inauguration is not unheard of for American presidents. But in the past, such public events have been choreographed to push a specific policy, a priority of the nascent administration’s first weeks in office.

Trump, who has yet to send any proposed legislation to Congress, didn’t make a case for just one issue. He urged lawmakers to work with him on tax reform, an infrastructure spending plan and the replacement of the Affordable Care Act but did not dwell on the particulars.

He also rattled off a list of his accomplishments, such as nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, restarting construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, and pursuing a more aggressive deportation policy for “gang members and drug dealers who are right now, as I speak, being thrown out of the country.”

“And they will not be let back in,” he said. “We will have strong borders again.”

In the era of unending political campaigns, the rally technically marked the first event of — yes — the 2020 presidential race. But in some ways, the 2016 contest never ended: Outside the rally, peddlers were still hawking “Hillary for Prison” buttons.

There were other throwbacks to Trump’s days as a candidate. The theme song from the Harrison Ford film “Air Force One” once again played upon Trump’s arrival — only this time, he had actually flown in on the grand presidential plane. The White House had told the Washington Post that Air Force One wouldn’t be used as a “prop” at Trump’s rally, yet it got plenty of air time by the hangar, with a made-for-TV sunset behind it.

Trump, clad in a black suit, white shirt and no tie, stepped off the plane holding a red “Make America Great Hat.” Moments later, he tossed the hat out to the crowd. First Lady Melania Trump introduced him after unexpectedly leading the audience in the Lord’s Prayer.

As a candidate, Trump had held a rally at the same hangar in September, after his rocky first debate against Clinton. Florida wound up giving Trump a key swing-state victory; he won Brevard County, home to Melbourne, by 20 percentage points.

“It’s so great to be here in Florida, my second home, with you,” Trump said Saturday. “This is a state I truly love. This is a state where we all had great victory together. Thank you.”

People had lined up for hours in the muggy heat to see him, some of them making the trip from quite far. Nancy and Jerry Ackerman drove from Oviedo, some 60 miles away, to try to show Congress that Trump has oodles of support.

“We didn’t go away just because he got elected,” Nancy Ackerman said.

Across the street from the hangar, hundreds of protesters gathered before the rally. Afterward, a smaller crowd chanting anti-Trump slogans was confronted by taunting Trump fans as police formed a barricade of patrol cars.

“No ban, no wall!” the protesters yelled.

“You shoulda voted!” a Trump fan countered. Then: “Get a job!”

Inside the rally, the crowd appeared in full victory-tour mode, cheering Trump along with fists and cell phones in the air, and roaring when he devoted the early part of his speech to hurling insults — now that he no longer has Clinton as a rival — at the news media. In a tweet Friday night, the president called the “FAKE NEWS media” — democracy’s Fourth Estate — “the enemy of the American people.”

Evidently trying to shield himself from criticism that referring to the media as an “enemy” is undemocratic, Trump pointed to some of his storied predecessors who also tangled with reporters.

“Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, and many of our greatest presidents, fought with the media and called them out, often times, on their lies,” Trump said.

(He didn’t mention that Jefferson, for example, also once wrote that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”)

“He’s just talking to the American people,” Janis Smith of Fort Myers said of Trump. “What gets out there from the media is not accurate.”

In a quintessential off-script Trump moment, the president — after railing against the media — pointed to a man in the crowd whom he’d seen interviewed on television during the 44-minute flight to Melbourne from West Palm Beach.

“Come here, come here,” Trump said, beckoning the man on stage and waving off apparent security concerns from the Secret Service. “I’m not worried about him. I’m only worried he’s going to give me a kiss!”

Gene Huber, who was interviewed by several news outlets because he was first in the rally line, bounded on stage and let out an “Oh my God” before he hugged Trump.

“When President Trump, during the election, promised all these things that he was going to do for us — I knew he was going to do this for us!” Huber said after Trump invited him to say a few words.

“A star is born!” Trump said with a grin.

Minutes earlier, on Air Force One, a reporter had asked Trump if it wasn’t too early in his presidency to start hitting the road for rallies again.

“Life is a campaign,” Trump said.

Mazzei reported from Miami.