Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election at Erie Insurance Arena on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
ERIE — Campaigning in crucial northwest Pennsylvania this weekend, Donald Trump gave familiar remarks amid a not-so-familiar path to 2024.
Saturday’s rally in Erie, an all-day, upbeat affair for his most loyal fans, was the former president’s first in Pennsylvania since announcing his presidential bid in November. It was Trump’s second Pennsylvania appearance this summer, after attending a Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia last month.
The former president relied on a litany of rhetoric that has been his brand since he first declared his candidacy eight years ago. The 77-year-old Trump vacillated between blasting President Joe Biden, criticizing Hunter Biden, mocking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans, and a long list of “enemies,” making policy pledges he claims are necessary to “save America,” and denying wrongdoing in the criminal cases mounting against him.
Mentions of “corruption” and “hoaxes” punctuated his nearly two-hour speech, which received periodic cheers and a few boos at mentions of Biden and the press. Trump’s nods to Pennsylvania and its residents were infrequent, though he did insult Philadelphia as a “horrible” place: “Has that city gone to hell or what?”
Though Trump spoke in the same downtown Erie arena as he did in 2016 and 2018, it was against a new backdrop. Losing the 2020 election to President Biden and the four criminal investigations into Trump’s conduct — from his 2016 campaign to after he left the White House — are now central in his pleas to Pennsylvania voters for next year’s Republican nomination. Over the last 15 years, statewide elections have typically reflected results in the northwest pocket.
Just 48 hours before speaking at the roughly 9,000-capacity Erie Insurance Arena — which was about half full for the rally — additional federal charges were filed against him. Trump referred to the charges from multiple cases in mostly veiled references, calling them “ridiculous indictments.”
Four criminal investigations of the former president, two of which have so far yielded indictments, have taken shape over the last three years.
Federal prosecutors have charged Trump with taking classified documents from the White House when he departed in 2021 and storing the sensitive national security materials at his Mar-a-Lago estate in south Florida. Thursday’s additional charges describe plans by Trump and his employees to delete security camera footage after investigators requested it. The revised indictment added three felonies against Trump, two against his aide Walt Nauta, and four against newly named defendant Carlos De Oliveira, a Mar-a-Lago property manager.
In New York, Trump is accused in state court of falsifying business records related to paying off adult-film star Stormy Daniels near the end of his 2016 campaign. And separate indictments loom: in Georgia over Trump attempting to overturn Biden’s narrow 2020 win in the state; in Washington over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
- Trump directed employees to destroy video evidence that could aid the prosecution in the criminal case, according to a 60-page superseding indictment filed July 27 full of new information about the case.
With every indictment, Trump said Saturday, “I consider it, actually, a great badge of honor.”
“It’s a great badge of honor because I’m being indicted for you,” he told the audience.
Trump’s Erie visit followed a Friday night stop in Des Moines for the Iowa GOP’s annual Lincoln Dinner fundraiser. Speaking alongside state party leadership, Trump was joined by 12 others vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, including DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador.
Rarely pronouncing DeSantis’s name correctly, Trump on Saturday mostly disparaged the Florida governor, who has been trailing second in polls.
Trump’s supporters, many of whom said they traveled to Pennsylvania from Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and elsewhere, filed in throughout the afternoon as a busy summer Saturday commenced around them. The city played host to a SeaWolves baseball game next door, Discover Presque Isle across the bay and an anti-Trump demonstration in Perry Square, the heart of deep-blue downtown.
The Erie Insurance Arena was bolstered by extra security, some of which was provided by the Erie Police Department. Mayor Joe Schember’s administration is hoping to avoid another ignored reimbursement request for the city officers’ overtime pay. In a statement Tuesday, Schember said the Trump campaign has not paid a $35,000 bill for city workers’ overtime pay from the 2018 event.
The city confirmed Friday that a $5,200 bill for Saturday’s expected security costs was mailed to the Trump campaign, which has $22.5 million cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing through June 30.
As rally remarks began late afternoon, Erie residents gathered in Perry Square for a food drive as a protest of Trump’s visit.
Cole Schenley, who co-chairs the Erie chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and is a member of Erie County United, said the two groups organized speakers and the food drive to provide material help to people struggling in the city. Progressive Erie City Council members spoke to about 60 people in the square. Enough food was donated to be distributed across the city’s network of 13 Little Free Pantries, Schenley said.
“We thought that a food drive would be a positive counterpoint to an event that will almost certainly be filled with negativity,” Schenley said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, who represents Erie in the 16th Congressional District and spoke in a lineup ahead of the former president’s 6 p.m. slot, emphasized the county’s importance for Trump in 2024.
“You’re the ones to make it happen, Erie,” Kelly said. “You’re the ones who can get him across the finish line.”
In a more fiery tone, he implored: “How much do you hate losing?” To guarantee a win, he said, “What length would you go to? What price would you pay? What role will we play?”
City voters, expectedly, rejected Trump on the 2016 and 2020 ballots. The county’s 37 other municipalities are far more centric, bringing Trump the win against Hillary Clinton in 2016. That cycle remains the only time since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was reelected, that Erie County moved for a Republican presidential candidate.
Voters in the 2020 election returned Erie County to a blue hue, with a narrow Biden victory.
Of Erie County’s 172,982 registered voters, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, 80,686 are registered Democrats and 67,246 are registered Republicans. Another 25,000 have a different affiliation or no affiliation.
Schenley, who is heavily involved in city and county politics, said Trump’s 2020 loss is providing a sense of safety among progressive Pennsylvania voters heading into 2024. With Democrats reclaiming a majority in the Pennsylvania House after a special election in May, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in office, a crowded field of GOP primary opponents, and the former president’s ongoing criminal probes, Trump’s hill may become harder to climb.
“He’s having to pitch himself all over again to the Republican Party,” Schenley said, adding that moderate voters aren’t as drawn to Trump’s defensiveness and vitriol as his devotees. “I think you’re going to see Erie County reject that next year.”
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