President Donald Trump returns to the campaign trail Thursday night, and he’s in a fighting mood.
Trump will step onstage in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for just his second rally of the 2020 cycle as he ramps up his re-election effort. And much has changed since his first one, on Feb. 11 in El Paso, Texas. The “streetfighter” — as former chief strategist Steve Bannon calls Trump — has new lines of attack and applause to employ against congressional Democrats and that party’s ever-growing roster of 2020 hopefuls.
The president has appeared both in high spirits and eager for revenge since Attorney General William P. Barr on Sunday afternoon sent Congress his summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.
Barr told lawmakers the report failed to find that Trump and his campaign committed criminal-level offenses with Russians in 2016, but Mueller also notably did not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice — despite Trump’s assertions and those of his surrogates to the contrary.
The president rarely comes out flat at campaign rallies, often feeding off the usually raucous crowds of supporters like he did earlier this month when he spoke for two hours at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington.
That performance came in the wake of public testimony from his former fixer, Michael Cohen, and the collapse of his second nuclear-disarmament summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“The rally likely will be a raucous victory lap for both the president and his supporters,” GOP strategist Evan Siegfried said. “Expect it to include broadsides on the press and Democrats about the last two years — for their discussion of the 2016 election and Russia.”
Also watch: The back and forth on why Mueller’s report hasn’t been released yet
Here are three things to watch when Trump hits the stage Thursday night in the town nicknamed both Furniture City and River City.
Expect the president to put on a hard sell that his economic and domestic policies have helped Michigan as much as any other state. That’s because polls show Trump has a lot of ground to make up there after his stunning win in the state in 2016, when he bested Hillary Clinton by less than half a percentage point.
The current RealClearPolitics polling average, based on two recent Michigan surveys, shows Trump trailing several potential Democratic opponents — one by double digits.
In a hypothetical general election race against former Vice President Joe Biden, the RCP average put Trump behind in Michigan by 10.5 points. He also trailed Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont by 8 points, Kamala Harris of California by 3.5 points and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts by 2.5 points.
“Winning Michigan is key for Trump to win a second term,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said. “Ohio is trending GOP, so the Buckeye State will be easier for Trump to win. The Democratic gubernatorial win last year in Michigan and the GOP victory in the Ohio gubernatorial in 2018 tell the tale.”
Since the release of Barr’s bare-bones summary of Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation, Trump and his team have made no efforts to try to unify a bitterly divided country. They have called Trump’s various investigators “treasonous” and “evil,” suggesting they will be counter-investigated and found guilty of trying to “overthrow” the president.
Trump could opt to sound a bipartisan message in Grand Rapids in an attempt to extend an olive branch to blue-collar independent and Democratic voters. But he does not tend to use political rallies, public words or tweets to expand his base beyond the roughly 40 percent of the population that support him. Expect that to continue.
“The rally in Michigan will give the president the chance to gloat over his ‘exoneration’ and to belittle the Democrats who accused him of collusion. … To win Michigan or any of the battleground states, he has to reach beyond his base by being gracious in victory,” Bannon said. “But he doesn’t have that in him and probably will attack opponents for being traitors.”
That won’t likely attract new voters to his Michigan base, but it could keep conservatives there fired up as Trump tries to drive up turnout among his steady supporters.
Despite failing to propose a plan of his own for four years, the president again on Wednesday asserted that “if the Supreme Court rules that Obamacare is out, we’ll have a plan that is far better than Obamacare.”
But on Capitol Hill, Republicans initially appeared shocked by his administration’s Monday move asking a federal appeals court to strike down the entire law. The days since have seen no movement toward a GOP replacement.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander on Wednesday could not point to such a broad GOP replacement plan. But the Tennessee Republican also said there would be quick action on protections for pre-existing conditions.
“The one thing I’m sure of, if that should happen — and we’re certainly a long way from there — and if [it] had any effect on protecting Americans with pre-existing health conditions, there would be an immediate plan to replace that,” the retiring senator said.
For Trump, the legal move is a curious one politically, GOP and Democratic political strategists say, because it potentially brings into question health coverage for millions of Americans just as the president’s 2020 re-election campaign is kicking into gear.
One Republican source reported having yet to decipher a motive for the potentially paradigm-shifting attempt to take down the sweeping health care law. “I’m befuddled,” said the GOP source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
It also comes as senior Democrats such as House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn are calling on their party to focus on so-called pocketbook issues like health care.
Some in Trump’s orbit have suggested the president decided to move ahead with the legal battle that some in his Cabinet reportedly opposed because he wants to cast the 2010 law as a prime example of the kind of socialist policies he says Democrats would enact if voters hand them both chambers and the White House.
“We’re not gonna allow the hard left … in the Congress to have their way on ‘Medicare for all,’” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday after defending the court filing. “We’re not going to lose the fight over government-run health care, which treats us all the same [with] one-size-fits-all health care for everybody. That’s not American.”
Bannon, the Democratic strategist, said that if Trump were hoping the move would make the Obama-era law a 2020 issue and set a “trap” for Democrats, “it better be a good one.”
“The president is taking on a tiger by the tail in eliminating a program that millions of people in the industrial Midwest depend on for medical and financial survival,” he said. “You don’t miss your water until the well runs dry, and ACA has become very popular.”