Donald Trump had two goals when he went to Arizona for a “Protect Our Elections” rally on Saturday: Pushing the big election lie that led to the January 6 insurrection and using his bully pulpit to play kingmaker and enforcer in upcoming GOP primaries.
Although the 2020 election was almost nine months ago and Joe Biden has been president for over six months, Arizona is ground zero for Trump’s 2020 election conspiracies, as a pair of Republicans in the Arizona state senate have used their subpoena power to seize ballots and equipment from Maricopa County to conduct an “audit,” despite three professional audits having previously found that the election was reliable and secure.
“We have to hold those that are responsible for the 2020 presidential elections scam,” Trump told the crowd. “It was a scam, greatest crime in history, and we have to hold these people accountable.”
Throughout his speech, the former president praised Republicans who have assisted him in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, such as Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, Rudy Giuliani, and the lawmakers behind the Arizona audit. And Trump bashed those Republicans who didn’t help him advance the Big Lie, including his former vice president, Mike Pence; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.
Before Trump took the stage, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk set the pace: “What kind of Republicans do we need to support? Republicans like Donald Trump.” The activist said he has “lost his patience” with “weak Republicans” who permitted a “mail-in ballot scam” and the “slow-motion transformation of our elections systems for good.” He went on:
What upsets me the most is that this happened in Republican states. In this state and in Georgia. And, this needs to be said once and for all. If you were silent or complicit in what happened in the 2020 election, resign and go re-run as a Democrat. Get the heck out of the Republican Party!
That particular message was both received and echoed enthusiastically by a slate of speakers seeking to prove their loyalty to Trump and earn his endorsement in their races. One line from GOP primary gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who was perhaps the most popular speaker aside from Trump, summed up the speakers’ posture: “I am a proud conservative and an unapologetic Trump Republican.”
Lake went on to complain about Republicans who accepted the election results. “You know the ones, the backstabbers,” she said. “The ones who turned their back on President Trump on November 4 and they told us to forget about the November 3rd election, that nothing went wrong and we should get on with our lives. We’re not gonna do that.”
Arizona State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, named one of the “backstabbers.” “We cannot elect anymore Republicans like Liz Cheney,” Yee said of the solidly conservative Wyoming Republican who backed Trump’s elections in 2016 and 2020 but withdrew her support for him after January 6. “We need to beat Liz Cheney in Wyoming and any fake Republicans running in Arizona!”
Speaker after speaker, including GOP congressional representatives Paul Gosar, Debbie Lesko, and Andy Biggs, embraced Trump’s election lies and promised action—except one.
Before Arizona State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita even started speaking, the booing began. The audience seems familiar with the fact that she opposed election changes that other Trump-supporting Republicans sought. The jeers were so loud she could barely begin her remarks and quickly abandoned the podium. “Fine, ok,” she said. “I’m running to be your next secretary of state. I’m going to win the primary, thank you very much,” before leaving the stage. Shortly afterward, she tweeted that although she initially supported the Trump audit, she now is against it.
“I’ll put my record of fighting for election integrity up against anyone. What I won’t do is vote for ‘show’ legislation that does nothing to strengthen election integrity and introduced for self-serving reasons,” Ugenti-Rita said. “Sadly, it’s now become clear that the audit has been botched.”
She placed blame directly on Karen Fann, the president of the Arizona state senate, who orchestrated the audit. Conversely, Trump singled out Fann for praise in his remarks and contrasted her with Ducey whom Trump described as a “governor who doesn’t do a damn thing” and is “not popular with me.”
Trump described a meeting with people who wanted to recruit Ducey to run for the U.S. Senate, and Trump told the crowd, “He’s not getting my endorsement” and derided McConnell as “the old crow.” At the mere mention of McConnell’s name, the crowd again booed loudly.
“I don’t understand guys like Ducey and your commissioners,” Trump continued, presumably referring to the members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who have pushed back fiercely against Fann’s audit. “These commissioners, they’re so bad.”
Later in his nearly two-hour speech, Trump blamed Pence for not doing more to overturn the election. “I only wish that my friend Mike Pence had that additional courage to send the results back to the legislatures,” Trump said as the crowd booed Pence’s name.
While Trump continues to make adherence to the very election conspiracies that caused the insurrection a litmus test for the upcoming Republican primary contests, elected Republican officials who could call him out are instead choosing to act as if the 2020 election and the insurrection are irrelevant because they are over and done.
For example, Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who is retiring from the Senate after this term, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday he was upset that Democrats are insisting on a congressional investigation into January 6.
“It is a constant reminder about a terrible episode in our history which Donald Trump was at the heart of, rather than looking at the policies of the current president,” Toomey said. “I mean, which is more relevant in 2022? I would argue the current president’s policies and the damage that he’s going to be doing, that’s what we should be debating in 2022.”
Not if Trump gets his way, though.
“I tell people, this is the biggest issue there is,” Trump said of elections and his Big Lie. “This is bigger than the border. This is bigger than anything. This is the biggest issue.” Republican officials might want their party to look to the future, but as long as Donald Trump is the GOP’s leader, the party will be stuck living his lie.