By Nick Corasanti
MOBILE, Ala. – It was here, some 16 months ago, that Donald Trump displayed the sheer power behind his candidacy, packing this aging gridiron with tens of thousands of fans braving traffic and the August sun to get a glimpse of a candidate who, despite his swelling crowds and soaring poll numbers, was still being dismissed as a long shot.
So he returned Saturday, as president-elect, to the place that launched, if nothing else, his own team’s confidence in Trump’s chances, to a crowd smaller in size but no less energized, to say one last “thank you” as only he can: through boasts and promises, threats and pledges, each met with a whoop from the crowd.
“We are really the people that love this country,” Trump told the crowd, adding that this was a part of his “little victory tour, but really they were thank you tours.”
Trump spent the majority of his time focusing on his victory. For more than half his roughly hourlong speech, Trump recounted blow-by-blow the tale of his victory, a pared-down version of his stump speech that featured mockery and impressions of the media, rhetorical questions and the occasional dig at the confidence of the Hillary Clinton campaign heading into Election Day. At the end of the night, he joked that he offered to buy the Clinton campaign’s fireworks “for 5 cents on the dollar.”
He was also candid, admitting he had moments before election night when he thought his victory was far from certain.
“She said those exit polls are just looking horrible and it’s not looking good,” Trump said, recalling a phone call with his daughter Ivanka. “So I went to my wife, I said, you know what, I don’t feel badly about this. Because I worked as hard as you can work.”
He avoided many of the news topics swirling around this transition period, most notably reports of Russian interference in the election and his response to the U.S. intelligence community’s findings, as well as a dispute with China over the seizure of a U.S. Navy underwater drone.
But he did veer from his prepared remarks to respond with a biting criticism of a New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, calling him a “clown” and “demented.” Krugman had suggested in a Twitter post Saturday that Trump might actually see a benefit in a terrorist attack because it could rally the country behind him much as the attacks on Sept. 11 brought the country together under President George W. Bush.
Trump repeated some of his favorite critiques of The Times from the campaign trail. “They’ll never change,” he said.
He also defended a comment from Michelle Obama, telling the crowd who booed the mere mention of her name that he thought her comments had come out wrong, and praised the welcome he received at the White House last month.
But, for the most part, he opted to bask one more time in the glow of his victory. The site of the rally, the Ladd-Peebles Stadium, represented a sort of trophy for Trump, who as a candidate loved the large crowds and fed off the energy.
“This is where it all began; remember that incredible rally we had?” he said. “People said something going on there, right? That was the beginning. That was the beginning.”
This final thank you rally was full of Trumpian splendor: a 50-foot Christmas tree topped the stadium, with a podium flanked by red poinsettias and more Christmas trees that proclaimed “Merry Christmas USA,” making good on one of Trump’s campaign promises that the country will “say Merry Christmas again,” as a three-piece country band played Southern rock classics.
The story of the initial Alabama rally, like most things with Trump, is full of drama, excitement and dispute. Originally planned for a small convention center, tickets quickly sold out. Another venue was too small, leaving Trump with the only option: the 40,000-seat stadium.
At the time, it was a brash choice, with a hint of recklessness, and cable news media debated for hours whether Trump could fill the cavernous stadium, the home field of the University of Southern Alabama football team.
It was also where Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., first appeared with the candidate, not offering an official endorsement but lending an aura of approval from an elder statesman in the party. Sessions, now Trump’s selection for attorney general, appeared again Saturday and was invited onto the stage mid-speech to greet the crowd in his hometown.
Trump, perhaps realizing he may have to give up the rallies for a bit, stuck a rare somber note as his remarks drew to a close.
“Now, in a certain way, the hard work begins,” he said.
But minutes later, he suggested he may return again to the stage, and soon.
“This is the last time I’m speaking at a rally for maybe a while, you know?” he told the crowd. “They’re saying as president, he shouldn’t be doing rallies, but I think we should, right? We’ve done everything else the opposite. This is the way you get an honest word out.”