“Yesterday, the Democrats voted to potentially nullify the votes of 63 million Americans,” Trump said, referring to the 2016 election, adding that Democratic lawmakers were “disgracing themselves and bringing shame among the House of Representatives.”
A day earlier, a sharply divided House voted to endorse an impeachment inquiry into the president, clearing the way for the public phase of the investigation. With House Republicans voting in lock step behind him, Trump emerged onstage as a one-man war room against accusations of abusing his power and betraying his oath of office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate political rivals.
In Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley and an industrial town in Mississippi’s northeast, Trump disparaged Democratic leaders as “mentally violent people” and mocked the testimonies of government officials who have told House impeachment investigators that he had held up aid to Ukraine for political reasons.
Trump insisted he withheld the money — $391 million — because of “corruption” and because he wanted European allies, including Germany and France, to do more to support Ukraine. His remarks moved him closer to comments made two weeks ago by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who acknowledged that the aid was tied up over a political investigation and struggled to walk those comments back.
“I didn’t know his name until I looked down at the card,” Trump said of a July phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, that lies at the heart of the impeachment investigation. “He’s a nice guy. and hopefully he’s going to root out corruption.”
Aides who listened to the conversation remember things differently. Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman of the Army, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told investigators this week that he was so concerned that the president’s comments were an affront to U.S. interests that he reported them to a superior.
Still, throughout Friday, Trump raged against impeachment and defended his behavior. On Twitter, he took aim at Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who is leading the inquiry. Leaving Washington, Trump lingered by Marine One and offered yet another defense.
“The impeachment thing is a hoax,” he said. “You can’t impeach the president who did nothing wrong.”
On the way to Tupelo, Trump repeated his call for a government whistleblower, whose account of the president’s behavior in the July call forms the basis of the impeachment inquiry, to step forward.
“The Whistleblower must come forward to explain why his account of the phone call with the Ukrainian President was so inaccurate (fraudulent?)” Trump wrote on Twitter aboard Air Force One. “Why did the Whistleblower deal with corrupt politician Shifty Adam Schiff and/or his committee?”
Contrary to the president’s claim, there is an ample and growing amount of evidence to suggest that the whistleblower’s account is factual.
Trump’s visit to Tupelo was ostensibly meant to bolster Tate Reeves, the Republican lieutenant governor. Reeves is locked in a close race with Jim Hood, the Democratic attorney general, for the Mississippi governorship.
But earlier in the day, the particulars of the race — as well as its general location — seemed to escape the president. In a morning Twitter post, he wrote: “Louisiana, I’ll see you tonight. Big Rally for Eddie R. He will be a GREAT GOVERNOR. Early voting starts! @EddieRispone.”
The blooper was quickly deleted, though not before it caught the attention of Rep. Bennie Thompson, the lone Democrat in the Mississippi congressional delegation. “Once again, 46-1 is showing his blatant ignorance. He doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing,” Thompson wrote on Twitter.
The mix-up appeared not to matter much in Mississippi, where local lawmakers primed the crowd on the main talking points of the night hours before the president arrived.
Phil Bryant, the staunchly conservative Republican governor of the state who in the spring signed into law a restrictive rule banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, told the crowd that Mississippi would remain a “ruby red” bastion after next Tuesday’s election.
In September, the president’s approval ratings in Mississippi was 13 points below where it was when he first took office, according to Morning Consult, a polling, media and technology company. Still, Bryant denounced both liberal and moderate political ideals in favor of the base politics that Trump has championed.
“A moderate is that yellow line in the middle of the road,” Bryant said, “where the opossums get run over.”
Other lawmakers at the rally focused on Trump’s recent victories. Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi emphasized the importance of the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
“He hid behind babies!” Kelly exclaimed, referring to al-Baghdadi, who pulled several children into a tunnel with him before detonating a vest containing explosives. Kelly did not repeat Trump’s unverified tale that the terrorist died whimpering and crying.
“Look, you know, you’ve heard about him for a long time. I kept saying ‘Where is al-Baghdadi? That’s the one I want,’” Trump said, adding that al-Baghdadi “punched out his ticket to hell” and “spent his last miserable moments on earth cowering and trembling” as U.S. forces approached.
The president complained that he had gotten less attention than President Barack Obama had for the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“Conan, the dog, got more publicity than me,” Trump said, referring to the dog used in the al-Baghdadi raid, before he momentarily brightened. “Conan’s coming to the White House in a few weeks.”
As Trump served his traditional red-meat recipe to the loudly cheering crowd, he returned to a punch list of potential 2020 rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, whom the president referred to repeatedly in his call with Zelenskiy.
“He’s gotten slower and slower,” Trump told the crowd. “I’m afraid if he gets the nomination, he’ll be so slow we’ll have the lowest rated debates in history.” Later, he seized on Biden’s slumping poll numbers: “He’s dropping like a rock, you know.”
Trump also crowed over the decision by former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke to withdraw from the 2020 race.
“Remember he made the statement he was born for this?” Trump said, nodding to O’Rourke’s early announcement. “Anybody who says they were born for this, they’re in trouble.”