MANCHESTER, N.H. — In his first rally since the Senate acquitted him on charges that he abused power and obstructed Congress, a triumphant President Donald Trump returned on Monday to New Hampshire, the state where he won his first primary in 2016 and that he hopes to carry in 2020.
At a rally in an arena that top officials billed as something of a homecoming, Trump’s crowd erupted in vintage chants of “Lock her up!” when he referred to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s behavior at his State of the Union address last week, when she tore up a copy of his remarks after he finished. “I’m speaking and a woman is mumbling terribly behind me, angry,” he said. “We’re the ones who should be angry.”
But Trump also credited Pelosi and the impeachment trial for an increase in his poll numbers. “Thank you, Nancy,” he said.
Trump and his top campaign aides made it clear that their immediate goal in coming to Manchester on the eve of the New Hampshire primary was to steal attention from a competitive Democratic primary in which Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, are running almost neck and neck in many surveys.
Trump dangled the idea that in the open primary, Republicans could try to influence the outcome. “A lot of Republicans tomorrow will vote for the weakest candidate,” Trump said. “My only problem is I’m trying to figure out who is the weakest candidate. I think they’re all weak.”
And the president claimed, without evidence, that Democrats illegally bused in voters from Massachusetts to vote in New Hampshire in the 2016 election, when Trump narrowly lost the state to Hillary Clinton. But even his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who is from New Hampshire, has said that never happened.
“We should have won the election,” Trump said. “But they had buses being shipped up from Massachusetts hundreds and hundreds of buses, and it was very, very close even though they did.”
In a disjointed speech where he toggled between the teleprompter and his own discursive asides, Trump played into working-class fears by warning of the loss of manufacturing jobs and played up his new North American and Chinese trade agreements.
And he stoked the same fears that propelled him to victory in the Republican primary here four years ago, noting that illegal immigrants coming into the country were “murders, rapists, and some other things. They’re going to be poisoning our children with drugs right here in New Hampshire.”
Four years ago, Trump benefited from running against a crowded field of traditional Republican candidates. This time around, a field of three challengers has already been whittled down to one — Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who has failed to make any dent in Trump’s popularity within the party.
But Trump hopes to deprive Democrats of being the focus of attention; in Iowa, the front page of The Des Moines Register the day after the president’s rally there featured a picture of him, not the Democrats.
Trump campaign officials said they were eager to begin running a general election strategy in a state the president lost to Clinton by just 2,700 votes and where they believe they can expand the map in November.
Trump’s rally at Southern New Hampshire University brought him back to the place where he shocked voters during the primary with a vulgar description of his chief rival at the time, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
A few weeks ago Trump singled out Cruz for praise when he signed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. “Thank you, Ted, for everything,” he said. “You’ve been incredible.”
It was a reminder of how far Trump has come in four years — his onetime foes have become his biggest defenders.
But his remarks also showed how much he relied on the same kit of tricks to rally his supporters. Trump reprised a 2016 primary campaign staple — reading aloud a poem called “The Snake,” about a woman who was bitten by a pet reptile she took in. In Trump’s rendering, “The Snake” represented the threat of immigrants in the country illegally. Trump, who is deeply superstitious, had not read the poem in months.
Supporters who began lining up in the snow a day ahead of the rally appeared to have forgiven Trump — if they ever blamed him — for maligning New Hampshire as a “a drug-infested den” in a 2017 private call with the president of Mexico, the transcript of which was published by The Washington Post.
Before leaving Washington to fly here, Trump expressed his admiration for authoritarian countries like China, where drug dealers are executed. “Countries with a powerful death penalty, with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem,” he said. “That includes China.”
The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, a senior White House adviser, joined him in Manchester after attending a “Cops for Trump” event in Portsmouth, with Vice President Mike Pence. A team of congressional allies, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, were also on hand, and plan to greet voters at polling stations on Tuesday.
Trump’s 2016 primary victory in New Hampshire, coupled with Sanders’ trouncing of Clinton in the Democratic race, were seen at the time as a sign of the power of two establishment-wrecking candidates. Part of Trump’s challenge this time around will be channeling the same outsider energy from the seat of the presidency.
Trump’s campaign is now focused on Sanders as the candidate it would most want to face in a general election.
Trump has not, in the past, been willing to bend to the traditional politicking that New Hampshire voters expect. In 2016, he grumbled to audiences in the state about the time he had to spend in the car to get from one event to another. And he bypassed the traditional flesh-pressing that New Hampshire voters expect from candidates trying to win their votes, instead flying in and out of the state on his private jet and sticking to jumbo rallies.
His campaign style has not changed. Trump outsourced the diner meet-and-greets to Pence, who dutifully stopped by Airport Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Monday, where he and Ivanka Trump sat with a family eating mozzarella sticks for an early dinner.
And the president left quickly after the rally, departing for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to participate in a dignified transfer of two soldiers killed over the weekend in Afghanistan.
“These were fallen heroes,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One. “And we were close by.”