HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — President Donald Trump used a campaign-style rally Thursday night to level a sustained attack on the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, just hours after news broke that special counsel Robert Mueller had impaneled a grand jury as part of the wide-ranging probe.
Calling the investigation “fake” and “demeaning,” he said it was both a Democratic excuse for the election loss and a distraction from what Trump contends are the more serious crimes of his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The adoring crowd here responded by reprising a hallmark of the campaign, chanting, “Lock her up!”
For a president who feels wounded and betrayed by some of his closest allies — including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russian matter — the night offered a chance to punch back in front of his base, which urged on his every blow.
“The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made-up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda and no vision,” Trump said to a roar of approval. “They don’t talk about the all-time-high stock market, they don’t talk about reforms to the VA, or about manufacturing jobs we’re bringing back to America by the hundreds of thousands, they don’t talk about the Keystone pipeline that I immediately approved.”
“The Russia story is a total fabrication,” the president added. “It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics, that’s all it is.”
The intelligence community has concluded that the Russian government interfered in the election to help Trump and harm Clinton. Mueller, along with two congressional committees, is investigating the interference and whether Trump’s campaign colluded in the effort.
“It just makes them feel better when they have nothing else to talk about,” Trump said. “What the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails.”
The line brought some of the the loudest applause of the night.
“And they should be looking at the paid Russian speeches,” he continued, offering no proof of his assertions. “And the owned Russian companies. Or let them look at the uranium she sold that is now in the hands of very angry Russians. Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign, there never were.”
“We didn’t win because of Russia — we won because of you, that I can tell you,” Trump said, continuing the riff. “Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania? Are there any Russians here tonight? They can’t beat us at the voting booths, so they’re trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want. They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us, and most importantly demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
Trump has been fuming about the Russia allegations since they first emerged during the campaign, and Thursday’s message reflected an emerging defense that takes aim at Clinton while also painting the scandal as a Democratic obstruction tactic.
The message was coordinated across speakers.
Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, said in opening remarks: “When you hear the word ‘Russia,’ let’s keep something in mind here: The same people pushing this crazy story about Russia — and it’s so crazy, you have no idea — are the people who said there was no path for Donald Trump, the same people who gave us fake polls.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who appeared onstage to announce that he was switching from the Democratic Party to become a Republican, said: “Have we not heard enough about the Russians? I mean, to our God in heaven above, think about it!”
Trump’s visit to the state, which he carried with 68 percent of the vote, was an escape from a capital that has dealt him a series of defeats in recent weeks. His push to repeal the Affordable Care Act came up short in the Senate, and an immigration plan proposed this week to curtail legal immigration was panned by Democrats and Republicans. Trump continues to face problems within the White House, too, where his press secretary, communications director and chief of staff have all left or been fired within the last few weeks.
But for crowd, the controversies of the Trump presidency have done little to dampen their enthusiasm.
“I love the people of this state, I love your grit, your spirit, and I love our coal miners and they’re coming back strong,” Trump told the crowd.
Ever the showman, he took a “Trump Digs Coal” sign from the crowd as he entered and held it aloft. Trump touted recent economic growth in the long-suffering state as an indication that voters would be vindicated for their trust in the first-time candidate for office.
“And it’s 3 percent growth in West Virginia — I wonder how that happened,” he said. “West Virginia, you’re leading the average. When was the last time you heard that, West Virginia?”
“You’re doing great, I’m so proud of you,” he added.
The feeling was mutual.
“It’s not often that you get the president coming to southern West Virginia,” said Eric Blatt, who came to the rally with his three daughters and a number of their cousins. The group traveled from across the river in Ohio for the event and munched on popcorn while waiting for Trump to take the stage.
For Blatt, like for so many here, Trump’s ascendancy has brought hope that the region’s coal industry can come back to life. And like Trump, he’s already seeing progress.
“It seems like it’s starting to uptick a little,” Blatt said. “Evidently, something’s working.”
But of course, Trump’s appeal doesn’t end there. It’s his style, Blatt said, “the brashness, the ‘I don’t give an S-H-I” — he stopped there. “He’s a real dude.”
And supporters are taking to Trump’s new strategy of attacking Congress, which is led by Republicans, for any troubles in Washington.
His agenda would be further along “if the Democrats would get out of the way and let him,” said Mindy Woodard, a West Virginia native.
“And the Republicans!” Nick Woodard, her brother, interjected.
Whether Trump can keep up the disciplined message, swinging at Democrats, Republicans and Hillary Clinton alike, remains to be seen. On Friday, he leaves Washington for a summer vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. Away from the Oval Office, he will still have his Twitter account handy.