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A buoyant Trump back in his element at Michigan rally

President Donald Trump arrived to speak at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. on March 28.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/Associated Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — President Trump took an unmistakable victory lap here on Thursday, reveling in his first campaign-style rally since the special counsel investigation that has dogged his presidency ended without his being charged with a crime.

“After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead,” Trump said as he took the stage in front of a sea of people in MAGA-red hats. “The collusion delusion is over.”

Trump was back in the city he visited on the eve of the 2016 election, back in the state that helped deliver him his victory over Hillary Clinton, ready to settle scores and set a triumphant — and at times acrid — tone as he trains his sights on reelection.


“Total exoneration. Complete vindication,” Trump said, before blaming the “corrupt media” and Democrats like Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for the long-simmering investigation into the question of links between his campaign and Russian efforts to influence the election.

“Robert Mueller was a god to the Democrats,” Trump said, “he was a god to them until he said there was no collusion. They don’t like him so much right now.”

It did not matter that the special counsel’s report did not fully exonerate Trump, nor that it established Russians did interfere with the election, nor that the public or Congress have yet to see the full contents. A summary of the report written over the weekend by Attorney General William Barr said the investigation by Mueller had not established that Trump’s campaign had coordinated with the Russian government to interfere in the election — but it also said Mueller had neither concluded Trump committed obstruction of justice, nor exonerated him of the crime.

“He feels victorious, but I don’t think the turn is as sharp as he thinks,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “The investigations are continuing and Democrats will feel even more determined to mobilize for 2020.”


In Washington, Trump faces other problems, including House investigations and discomfort even among some members of his party with his administration’s support for the entire Affordable Care Act being thrown out — a move that would result in millions of people losing health insurance if there is no replacement.

But here, in an 82-minute speech, Trump focused on a theme of “promises made, promises kept.” He bragged about his efforts to secure funding for a border wall and mocked asylum-seekers. He trumpeted his efforts to upend the health care system, declaring himself to be a defender of people with preexisting conditions even though his administration previously called for those protections to be thrown out of the Affordable Care Act.

“We have a chance of killing Obamacare,” Trump said. “The Republican Party will become the party of great health care.”

Trump spoke at length about his trade and economic policies, but also took pot shots at Democrats, calling them the party of “crime, hoaxes, and delusions.”

“Democrats have to now decide whether they will continue defrauding the public with ridiculous bullshit, partisan investigations,” the president said, “or whether they will apologize to the American people.”

And somewhere between the chants of “No collusion,” Donald Trump Jr.’s signing of supporters’ “Make America Great Again” hats, and the cheers of voters in sequined blue cowboy hats, the rally made something else clear: Trump’s reelection campaign, which has been steaming along virtually since his inauguration, is kicking into a higher gear.


“This is the beginning of the 2020 campaign, in Michigan, right here,” said Matt Maddock, a Republican state representative, as his wife, Meshawn, a founder of a group called the Michigan Trump Republicans, grinned at his side.

“This is it, it’s going to be hell on wheels, pedal to the metal Trump,” she said.

Outside the arena, which seats 11,000 people and appeared to be full aside from some empty space on the floor, downtown Grand Rapids took on the feel of an embittered carnival, with the president’s supporters wrapped in 2020 flags and his opponents holding shiny balloons depicting Trump as a baby in a white diaper.

Inside, the feeling of vindication was complete before Trump spoke. Laura Cox, the head of Michigan’s Republican Party, led the gathering crowd in a chant of “No collusion, no obstruction.”

Later, Trump Jr., took the stage and ticked off the president’s various good fortunes this week. There was the end of the Mueller investigation. There was Congress’s inability to override Trump’s veto of their attempt to block his declaration of an emergency at the southern border. And there was something else, too:

“This week, MAGA stands for something a little different: Michael Avenatti Got Arrested,” Trump Jr., said, referring to the Democratic lawyer who has cast himself as a foil to Trump but was charged with extortion and fraud this week.


As more than a dozen Democratic candidates for president criss-cross the country vying to run against Trump, his rally — his first appearance in this city since he visited as part of a “thank you” tour shortly after his election — was also an attempt to stake a claim on Michigan.

“We all know the path to the White House has to go through the Midwest — here, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan,” said Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “He’s doing his due diligence.”

Trump’s 2016 victory here by fewer than 11,000 votes stunned Democrats, who had carried the state in every presidential election from 1992 onward, and Clinton was frequently derided for not spending enough time here. Some of the Democratic 2020 contenders have already signaled they would not take the state for granted: former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, have already campaigned here.

Democrats in Michigan believe suburban discomfort with Trump, as well as their focus on kitchen table issues like health care, helped them in the midterms and will help them again in 2020, but some watched him ride his wave of good news into Michigan with discomfort.

“I will admit this last week has been a good week for Trump and if he continues like that, it makes our hill harder to climb,” said Robert S. Womack, a Democrat and a member of the Kent County board of commissioners.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.