WASHINGTON (AP) – Thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump returned to Washington on Saturday for rallies to support his desperate efforts to overturn the election he lost to Joe Biden. They applauded as Trump flew over the Marine One helicopter as he left town for the Army-Navy football game in West Point, New York.
The mostly unmasked Trump rallies were conceived as a show of force just two days before the Electoral College convened to formally elect Biden as the 46th president. Trump, whose term will end on Jan.20, refuses to concede, while clinging to baseless fraud allegations that were dismissed by state and federal courts, and the Supreme Court on Friday.
Trump tweeted his apparent surprise Saturday morning at the rallies, publicly known for weeks: “Wow! Thousands of people are forming in Washington (DC) for Stop the Steal. I didn’t know about it, but I’ll see them! #MAGA “
Trump left the White House around noon for the trip to the US Military Academy, and as Marine One passed over a rally on the National Mall, cheers rose up.
Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser recently pardoned by Trump, was speaking from the stage at the time.
“That’s pretty cool. Just imagine being able to jump in a helicopter and take a merry ride around Washington,” said Flynn, whose forgiveness erased his conviction for lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation.
During a pro-Trump protest in Washington a month ago, Trump delighted his supporters when he passed in his motorcade on their way to his Virginia golf club.
The protest, which drew 10,000 to 15,000 people in the capital, ended with scattered clashes between Trump loyalists and local activists near Black Lives Matter Plaza, near the White House.
While Saturday’s rallies, including one in Freedom Plaza downtown, were smaller, they drew a larger contingent from the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group known for inciting street violence.
Asked about the Proud Boys’ support for him during a debate with Biden, Trump told them to “take a step back and be ready.”
Police took more action on Saturday to separate the two sides, closing a wide swath of the city center to traffic and completely restricting Black Lives Matter Plaza. One block away, about 150 anti-Trump protesters gathered, determined to protect the space. Small groups of Trump supporters who entered the area were verbally raped.
A group of about 50 men wearing Proud Boys black and yellow surrounded the perimeter. Police held them two blocks from the anti-Trump rally.
The Proud Boys chanted vulgar slogans and at one point started singing “Jingle Bells”. They had apparently been ordered not to engage with rowdies. A man speaking to people was yelled at and said “Don’t interact!”
Hundreds of Proud Boys, some wearing bulletproof vests, then marched near Freedom Plaza and gathered in the National Mall, in sight of the pro-Trump rally scene, but keeping their distance.
The mall assembly, called the “Jericho March,” was described on its website as a “prayer rally” with speakers “praying that the walls of corruption and voter fraud come down”.
The rally in Freedom Plaza also featured a series of speakers pushing debunked allegations of voter fraud to a receptive audience.
Sylvia Huff, a protester who came from Gloucester, Va., To show her support for Trump, said the legal defeats had not shaken his belief that he had won the election.
“I think the courts were also on the right track,” she said. The Supreme Court, where three of the nine justices were appointed by Trump, “was just afraid of a political backlash,” she said.
Among the speakers was Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser, who urged protesters not to give up even after Friday’s Supreme Court ruling. He said he wanted to send Trump a video and held up his phone, calling on the flag-waving crowd to chant “Stop the Steal.”
The organizers of the rally appeared determined to avoid confrontations, by telling protesters in advance to avoid certain hotels and marking off large parts of downtown Washington as a “no-go zone.”