Not far from where his Atlantic City casino empire once stood (and fell), President Donald Trump returned to the Jersey Shore on Tuesday night for a campaign rally in which he boasted about his record, bashed Democrats who impeached him, belittled the press, warned that cows may disappear, and excited a crowd of thousands in Wildwood.
The Republican president also accused the “left-wing radical” Democrats who lead New Jersey of supporting immigration policies that protect criminals “who should be taken the hell out of our country.”
Trump’s appearance at the Wildwoods Convention Center on the boardwalk of the famed seaside city marked the first time he brought one of his raucous (and frequently fact-checked) rallies to deep-blue New Jersey since being elected three years ago.
And he kicked off his 62-minute speech — relatively short by his rally standards — by pouring praise on the state he’s occasionally called a second home for decades.
“I love New Jersey, and I’m thrilled to be right here back in the Garden State,” Trump told the audience, a large chunk of which was decked in his trademark red hats.
Trump’s appearance just hours after his lawyers wrapped up their defense of his actions in the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial.
But Trump didn’t focus much on impeachment Tuesday. And when he did, he dismissed it with his usual brashness, declaring that people are “disgusted” by Democrats.
“While we are creating jobs and killing terrorists, congressional Democrats are obsessed with demented hoaxes, crazy with hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” said Trump, who is up for re-election in November.
“Which is worse: the impeachment hoax or the witch hunt from Russia?” he also asked the crowd.
Polls show Trump is largely unpopular in Democratic-heavy New Jersey, a state a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried since 1988.
But Wildwood is located near the state’s bottom tip — one of the few parts of Jersey where Trump supporters are plenty.
The event also doubled as a campaign boost — and thank you — to U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who represents Wildwood as part of the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
Van Drew last month switched from the Democratic to Republican Party and pledged his “undying support” Trump as the president faces impeachment.
On Tuesday, Trump called Van Drew “a courageous leader” who left the Democrat Party because “he has had enough with their extremism.”
Van Drew then took the podium and told the fervent crowd: “He’s here — a man who kept his word — to ensure that the eyes of the world are on South Jersey and all of us.”
The rally came in the middle of the Shore’s winter season, with many restaurants and stores closed throughout Wildwood. The weather was also 41 degrees and windy.
But the parking lots along the boardwalk were crowded with thousands of Trump supporters waiting on line with hopes of getting into the 7,000-seat hall. Some had camped out for a day or two.
Dozens of vendors sold Trump hats, T-shirts, and a stuffed animal known as “Trumpy Bear.”
An official attendance tally wasn’t available by the end of the event. But people filled the stands of the 7,400-seat venue, as well as a large part of the floor in front of the podium.
Trump said Van Drew told him there were 175,000 people who asked for tickets and declared that “an all-time record” for his rally requests.
Trump also said “fake news” reporters in the arena likely won’t report the crowd size.
“They’re fake. They’re not honest,” Trump said. “They never mention it.”
Trump said there were “tens of thousands of people” outside the arena, as well. But by NJ Advance Media’s count, there was an overflow crowd of only a few thousand watching Trump’s speech on a Jumbotron outside. Hundreds had left when they realized they couldn’t get in.
Trump claimed people asked him to move the rally to the Meadowlands.
“I said no, ‘I want to be in South Jersey,’” he said.
“We could have filled up the Meadowlands arena two or three times,” Trump added. “Maybe we’ll do it in the summer.”
The event was held about 45 miles from Atlantic City, where Trump once owned a string of casinos from the early 1980s to early 2000s — a period in which his casino companies went bankrupt five times.
But Trump didn’t mention A.C., his casinos, or any of the three private golf clubs he still owns here.
Instead, he opened his speech by noting how New Jersey’s unemployment rate is a record-low 3.5 percent — something the state’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, also champions.
Later, Trump warned that the Green New Deal supported by many progressive Democrats will force Americans to “close your factories” and “get rid of your cows.”
“You don’t have too many cows in Wildwood,” he said. “But if you do, they’re gone.”
And in one of the night’s most heated and controversial moments, Trump accused New Jersey Democrats of instituting “sanctuary policies that resulted in dangerous predators being sent free into your community.
Though Republicans often attack Murphy, the state’s governor, for his immigration policies, Trump did not call out anyone by name. But he did single out two cases in the state.
In one, Trump said Cumberland County officials released an “illegal immigrant” charged with multiple counts of sexual assault of a child.
“He is now at large, free to search for another innocent victim,” Trump added.
Trump didn’t specify who he was talking about. But it appears to be a reference to Luciano Trejo-Dominguez, 33, who was arrested in August 2019 in Vineland for the alleged sexual assault of a minor between 13 and 15 years old.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — or ICE — issued a detainer request that Dominguez be held at the county’s jail after his arrest. But he was later released. Jail officials said ICE submitted incomplete paperwork.
Still, Dominguez is not free. He was arrested again as part of an ICE sweep in September 2019.
Trump also referenced the case of Luis Rodrigo Perez, 23, a Mexican citizen who was released from a Middlesex County prison on domestic violence charges and was later charged with killing three people in Missouri.
“Democrats stand for crime, corruption, and chaos,” Trump said. “Republicans stand for law, order, and justice.”
Many of New Jersey’s top Republican figures were on hand for the rally — including former Gov. Chris Christie (a longtime Trump friend and ally), South Jersey native Kellyanne Conway, state Republican Chairman Doug Steinhardt, a handful of state lawmakers, and former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who just launched his campaign for the GOP nod for governor in 2021.
Trump praised Christie from the podium, saying he “did a terrific job as governor.”
He then called Conway to take the mic.
“Mr. President, I think South Jersey is Trump country,” said Conway, the White House adviser who grew up in nearby Atco and still owns a house in Alpine.
Trump also called Jerseyans “tough, smart, and great people” — and cited Thomas Edison and Frank Sinatra by name.
“He was a piece of work,” Trump said about Sinatra.
A few hours before Trump took the stage, progressive advocates held a protest just down the boardwalk.
“Love, not hate, makes America great,” they chanted.
They also yelled: “Lock him up!”
Trump supporters shouted back to drown them out.
From afar, Murphy, the Democratic governor who often uses Trump’s name like a dartboard, released a statement chiding the president as he visited the Garden State.
“President Trump has spent the past three years breaking promises and taking our country backwards by embracing hate and division,” said Murphy, who succeeded Christie in January 2018. “His failed record stands in stark contrast to what we’ve been able to accomplish here in New Jersey, and his presence is a reminder of how important it is that we continue working to make our economy deliver for the middle class, not just the wealthy and well-connected.”
Since becoming president, Trump has spent many summer weekends and his working August vacations at his Bedminster golf club, though this is his first political trip to New Jersey since becoming president.
Trump primarily has visited states he carried in 2016, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, or states he came close to winning, such as Minnesota. His last political rally in the Garden State occurred in May 2016 when he was the featured attraction to help Christie pay off his own campaign debt from his ill-fated run for the White House.
But Van Drew asked him to visit his district when the two men met in the Oval Office last month before the congressman officially switched parties, and Trump agreed.
NJ Advance Media staff writers Matt Arco, Vinessa Erminio, Chris Franklin, Amanda Hoover, Samantha Marcus, and Ted Sherman, contributed to this report.
Brent Johnson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01.
Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JDSalant or on Facebook.
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