Former President Donald Trump returned to Sarasota on Saturday, holding a packed rally at the Sarasota County fairgrounds.
It may not have had the painted elephant that appeared at Trump’s 2015 Sarasota rally, but at Saturday’s event, Trump swag was in abundance, “Macho Man” played at least five times and the crowd roared its approval for the former president when he took the stage shortly after 8:30 p.m.
Here are five takeaways from Trump’s rally in Sarasota:
Trump base remains committed
There aren’t many – if any – political leaders who could entice thousands of people to a Florida fairground in July, where they bake in a field for hours before standing in the pouring rain, waiting to hear a defeated politician give a 90-minute speech.
But Trump’s popularity was on full display Saturday, as his supporters stood in an off-and-on downpour for nearly two hours, at times cheering louder as the rain intensified.
“You sat and got drenched. Is everybody drenched?,” Trump said. “You don’t have to worry about taking a shower tonight, that water is so clean and nice.”
Trump gear was ubiquitous at the rally, much of it echoing the former president’s combative persona.
Trump’s propensity for long speeches has reportedly led to attendees leaving some rallies while he is still speaking. But Saturday night in Sarasota, the audience was transfixed on the former president.
Maybe it was the promise of fireworks at the end, maybe it was because many out-of-towners had driven hours to see him, or maybe Trump was in top form, but he had the audience cheering and chanting even as his speech crossed the 90-minute mark.
Coverage of rally:Former President Trump rallies in front of enthusiastic crowd in Sarasota
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DeSantis not mentioned
Gov. Ron DeSantis is considered a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and he remains extremely popular among Republicans both in Florida and across the country.
But DeSantis’ name only came up a handful of times from the main stage on Saturday.
The governor was not at the event because he remained in Surfside, overseeing the condominium collapse response. His office denied anonymous reports earlier this week that he had urged Trump to cancel the rally, and on Saturday GOP officials said Trump supported his decision to not attend.
“I know the governor called the president up and talked to him about it,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters, who is also the chairman of the Florida GOP, and “everybody agreed that he needs to do what he needs to do to serve the state.”
With Trump believed to be considering a 2024 run, and DeSantis considered a contender as well, the governor may go from beloved protégé to political rival. Many believe that, based on past Trump rivalries, it is only a matter of time before Trump turns on the governor.
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However, DeSantis is also highly popular among Trump fans, so there is no political consensus on how such a turn would play out.
A handful of the speakers at Saturday’s rally mentioned DeSantis, and vendors sold shirts emblazoned with “Trump-DeSantis 2024: Make America Florida.” But when the former president took the stage, he made no reference to DeSantis.
Trump gave shout-outs to many Florida political players, calling Gruters a good friend, and telling Sarasota County Commissioner and Florida GOP Vice Chair Christian Ziegler he did a “great, great job on the election.”
But the words “Ron DeSantis” did not come out of Trump’s mouth.
‘Stolen election’ narrative
Trump’s unfounded complaints about the 2020 election being rigged have been dismissed by judges across the political spectrum, including several conservative-leaning judges that he appointed.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr has compared Trump’s complaints to cow dung, according to a book on the Trump administration, set to be released in November.
But the claim that he was cheated is central to Trump’s messaging, and it draws a clear line in the sand that his political allies will likely have to answer for.
“We won so much, and then we had a rigged election unfortunately,” Trump said, a claim that has been repeatedly refuted.
“I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy,” he said at another point. “I am the one trying to save American democracy.”
More:‘We couldn’t miss it for the world’: Trump supporters descend on Sarasota for rally
As Republicans up for reelection in 2022 seek the former president’s support, Trump made it clear once again that his endorsement comes with strings attached on an issue that even close Trump allies have dismissed.
Criminal investigation a ‘witch hunt’
Trump’s business organization is facing criminal charges, according to an indictment brought by New York prosecutors that was unsealed Thursday.
The Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, are facing allegations of fraud and conspiracy. Weisselberg is accused of not paying taxes and using unreported income to pay for housing, school and car expenses.
Trump claimed prosecutors were politically motivated, and he questioned why anyone would be in trouble for taking advantage of “fringe benefits.”
“The only one they want to prosecute is me or Republicans,” he said. “They are letting thousands and thousands of criminals out of jail.”
More:Trump Organization charged with tax fraud. For Donald Trump it’s more a legal risk than a political one
He circled back to a theme that many of the evening’s speakers touched upon, that Democrats are responsible for rising crime rates and that left-wing prosecutors were ignoring serious violence so they could spend their time attacking him.
“Murder is OK. Human trafficking? No problem,” he said sarcastically. “But fringe benefits?”
Trump’s status as Republican kingmaker has politicians across the right playing a delicate dance. Trump emphasized again that anyone who wasn’t with him was against him.
“There’s a few here who I’m not going introduce because they are not warriors, so to hell with them,” he said, referring to Republican leaders who weren’t sufficiently loyal.
Some elected officials, like U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, of Sarasota, are so enthusiastic about Trump that it is part of their political brand. For others, like Sarasota’s Vern Buchanan, who many would describe as an old-school country club Republican, it is an awkward embrace.
Read blog:President Trump wraps up 90-minute speech at fairgrounds
Buchanan has broken with Trump on issues such as supporting the Paris Climate Accord. Buchanan also voted to certify the 2020 Electoral College results, something Steube opposed.
But Buchanan also is far from a Trump critic and generally has supported the former president.
On Saturday, Buchanan, who is facing a primary challenge from Sarasota businessman Martin Hyde in his 2022 reelection bid, notably got a speaking spot and Trump thanked him as well.
When Buchanan spoke at the event, he reiterated several of the main talking points that most of the speakers hit upon.
“Everybody in here will be paying more taxes for their Green New Deal,” Buchanan said.
Hyde campaigned at the event, and he touted his Trump loyalty by highlighting his presence at the Jan. 6 riots and mentioning Parrish resident Adam Johnson, who went viral over a photo of him stealing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern.
“I was there on Jan. 6. It was a lot colder,” Hyde said. “I didn’t get to take Nancy’s dais, or whatever it was that lectern thing.”
Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at email@example.com or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.