SARASOTA, Fla. — Donald Trump took his revenge tour to his new home-state of Florida Saturday night but had a fresh target: the indictments against the Trump Organization.
Trump held his rally — the second since he left office — as the state and nation continue to mourn a South Florida condo collapse that left at least 20 dead and more than 100 still unaccounted for. It also comes two days after prosecutors unsealed indictments alleging Trump Organization and its chief financial officer did not pay $1.7 million in taxes tied to company fringe benefits.
Trump tore into the indictments in front of thousands of cheering fans at a fairgrounds in Sarasota, casting the allegations as a politically-motivated prosecution against him, his family and business.
“You didn’t pay taxes on the car, or company apartment…or education for your grandchildren,” Trump said of the allegations facing the Trump Organization and its longtime CFO Allen Weisselberg. “They indict people for that, but murder and selling massive amount of the worst drugs in the world that kill people left and right, and that’s alright?”
Those in attendance, who spent much of the night getting soaked by heavy rains, brushed off the charges against the Trump Organization.
“It’s all fake news, you know that,” said Duane Schwingle, a Chiefland, Fla., resident who was at the rally dressed as Uncle Sam costume. “Trump is our president, and none of that is legitimate. It’s a witch hunt.”
For days, the nation has been focused on rescue effort at the building disaster in Surfside, Fla., which was acknowledged by a brief moment of silence hours before Trump took the stage. That tragedy kept one of Trump’s top allies in the state — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — from the Saturday night rally as he focused on the ongoing crisis in Miami. DeSantis, who is becoming increasingly popular with the conservative base across the country, is eyeing a 2024 bid for the White House. That could put him on a collision course with the former president, who has openly signaled he’s considering another run for president.
DeSantis has a reputation as one of the nation’s most pro-Trump governors, and has made huge inroads with Trump’s political base as he builds his profile and fundraises across the country. Yet Trump’s rally offers a striking contrast between the two men: DeSantis sat out the political rally amid the Surfside crisis while Trump went ahead with his event.
Trump spoke for more than 90 minutes to a packed house at the fairgrounds in Sarasota, a reliably Republican area of the state that is Trump’s political home turf. During the rally, Trump gave a shout-out to Joe Gruters, a Florida state senator and Republican Party of Florida Chairman who, as local party chairman here, picked Trump as the ‘Statesman of the Year’ long before he ran for president. Others who spoke before Trump included Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is under federal investigation in an ongoing sex-crimes investigation, and the former president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.
Trump spent about 10 minutes railing against the New York prosecution against his company, simultaneously downplaying the severity of the charges and painting it as part of an ongoing witch hunt.
“I’ve been targeted since I came down the elevator,” he told the crowd. He later added: “It’s really called prosecutorial misconduct. It’s a terrible, terrible thing.”
Florida is a friendly state for the former president, and Trump declared himself a resident of the state in 2019. He won Florida by more than three-points in 2020 and many of his biggest supporters call Florida home. And he thanked the crowd who attended his Saturday night event, one of several rallies that he’s billed as a way for the president to seek revenge on the congressional Republicans who voted for his second impeachment
“Together we will take back the House, we will take back the Senate, and we will take back America,” Trump said.
Trump focused much of his speech on a slate of conservative issues that energized his political base, replaying for the raucous audience the greatest hits they have not heard since he left the White House in January, including securing the border, praising his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and attacking “socialist” Democrats.
“The radical left is bringing a nightmare of mayhem and lawlessness to every state and community in this country,” Trump said.
Though Trump lost to President Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes, he has continued to spread baseless claims about the 2020 election being stolen, including recently promoting an election audit in Arizona’s most populous county.
Some in the party are concerned about the long term impact of partisan election audits, but the positioning has energized Trump’s most ardent supporters and convinced some of them that the former president could be reinstated.
One man who attended the rally dressed in a suit and tie similar to Trump’s said he thinks the audit in Arizona will reveal that Democrats “cheated.”
“They all cheated,” said the man, who only identified himself as “Donald J. Trump.” “They are fake news, they put these fake ballots out…they have dead people voting.”
While he spoke, the people around him all cheered.