In SC, Trump downplays mounting legal problems to loyal audience
The same week Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to federal charges related to efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, the former president was welcomed back to South Carolina Saturday with minutes-long standing applause.
It was a sign that fresh federal indictments may have had very little impact on the current 2024 GOP frontrunner in a state that boasts two homegrown candidates: former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.
"I never heard the word indictment, then all of a sudden over a period of a couple of weeks, you get four indictments," Trump said in Columbia at the S.C. Republican Party's annual fundraiser, a possible hint that Trump expects afourth indictment out of Georgia.
"They do this to try and win an election. Nobody ever thought it was possible," he added.
Opposite of Iowa in July, where GOP presidential candidates each had their own speaking slot, Trump had no rivals at the State Fairgrounds Saturday. And the crowd included some of his most fervent backers: Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, both of whom are on his South Carolina leadership team.
"These cases against Donald Trump are losers," McMaster, a former U.S. attorney of South Carolina and attorney general, said Saturday. "It has been said that you can put lipstick on a pig, but I don't think all the lipstick in the world can turn these pigs into princesses."
Trump spoke for more than an hour Saturday at the annual Silver Elephant dinner.
The gala has become a go-to dinner for notable and up-and-coming Republicans, dating back to the first in 1967 with Ronald Reagan, in a state that hosts the first primary in the South every four years.
But in a show that Trump’s visit was anything like his predecessors, the dinner had to be moved from the Columbia Convention Center downtown to the State Fairgrounds, in part, to handle more seating for the 1,300 people in attendance.
S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick told reporters Saturday the party has worked to get Trump to headline for about the last four years.
“This is the biggest Silver Elephant Gala we’ve had in the history of the party. … That means the most people, the most money that we’ve ever raised from this event,” McKissick. “My No. 1 job is to raise money so we can beat Democrats next year.”
Katon Dawson, a former state GOP chair who has endorsed Haley’s 2024 bid, said any criticism of the party inviting Trump as the headline is not warranted.
“Silver Elephant is a reward for the activists, and it’s also meant to raise money for the party, and good for them,” said Dawson, who didn't attend this year due to a work conflict.
However, not all past supporters of the dinner were thrilled with Trump’s main speaking slot.
State Sen. Josh Kimbrell, a Spartanburg Republican who is backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, said he thought making Trump the only featured speaker was a “mistake to tip your hand one way or another.”
Kimbrell did not attend the dinner, noting his endorsement.
Allowing Trump to headline “at the exclusion of all the others,” Kimbrell said, “was not the best choice.”
Among the harshest critics of Trump’s visit?
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot — a vote that cost Rice his House seat and resulted in a censure from the state party.
“I’m really disappointed in the leadership of the South Carolina GOP,” Rice said Friday by phone. “I think they are afraid of the ex-president. After I voted to impeach, two, three weeks later, they held a meeting to censure me without letting me know, without giving me an opportunity to respond, just based on their blind loyalty to this man. I think they’re doing a huge disservice to the Republican Party.”
McKissick dismissed criticism Saturday, saying the party plans to hold more individual candidate events and, later this year, a larger forum where all candidates will be invited to speak on the same stage.
“My job is to raise money for the party," McKissick said. "When I’ve got this many candidates who want to be in South Carolina, I want to do as many individual events with all of them as I possibly can to raise as much money as I can so we can beat Democrats next year."
Trump insults special counsel
In his typical fashion, Trump’s remarks Saturday covered a wide range of topics: President Joe Biden, China and trade, hot-button conservative social issues, his 2024 GOP rivals and his third indictment, the latest pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
On Tuesday, Trump, 77, was indicted by a federal grand jury on four felony charges for interfering in the democratic process over efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
Trump, who argues his actions are protected by the First Amendment, pleaded not guilty Thursday, calling the indictment a “very sad day for America.”
"We call it a sham indictment," Trump said Saturday, later calling special counsel Jack Smith "mentally ill" and a "deranged human being."
Trump may soon face a fourth indictment out of Georgia, where he pressured public officials to overturn election results that showed Biden won the state in 2020.
Yet the indictments have so far shown little effect on Trump’s support in South Carolina.
The same week of the indictment, S.C. House Speaker Murrell Smith endorsed Trump in a Charleston Post and Courier column.
Video and photos posted Saturday by Trump's campaign showed the Sumter Republican departing the plane with Trump and shaking hands with supporters in Columbia.
In the column, Smith wrote that the former president was a “champion for the values we hold dear and led our country into a period of economic prosperity and opportunity.”
And if polling is any indication, Trump remains the clear frontrunner in South Carolina — a state he won in 2016 and 2020. AJuly Fox News Business poll showed Trump in first at 48%, followed by Haley with 14%, then DeSantis and Scott with 13% and 10%, respectively.
“He’s got a firm grip on the base, and … with every indictment it gets firmer,” said Dawson, who added there's still an opportunity for other candidates, like Haley, to make headway.
“I understand why his numbers are so hard, but it’s not Labor Day yet. People will start paying attention after Labor Day, when the kids are at school, SEC football is at full force,” Dawson added. “I will contend that not a whole lot of people, except for his base, are paying attention to all this theater. It’s a lot to digest.”
In a call with S.C. reporters Thursday, DeSantis issued a warning for Republicans should the race continue to focus on the 2020 election and Trump's legal issues.
"If the election becomes about the past, if it becomes about what happened three or four years ago, five or six years ago," DeSantis said Biden could have an advantage. "And we're going to end up saying, ... 'What happened? How come we can't win these elections?'
For Rice, the lack of direct criticism from South Carolina’s own about Trump has been disappointing, he said.
Since he was ousted in the crowded 2020 primary by former S.C. Rep. Russell Fry, Rice has stayed out of national headlines. He’s now retired, and acknowledges his political career is likely over.
Though his vote to impeach cost him his seat, Rice does not regret his vote.
It was “absolutely the right thing. I would never second guess or do it differently,” Rice said. “I regret that I lost. But, no, that was absolutely the right thing to do, there is no question in my mind.”
As to who Rice might back in 2024, so far his first choice is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a candidate, he said, who’s been “unafraid to speak the truth” about Trump.
“I thought the Republican Party was the party of Constitution over any man, but, boy, he has proven me wrong,” Rice said. “He wants to be king and they want him to be king.”