Just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a historic visit to the U.S., former president Donald Trump heaped praise on him, calling him “a great guy.”
During a campaign rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Trump called Xi “fierce” and “smart,” contrasting him with President Joe Biden, who Trump called “weak” and “a very stupid person.” Biden said the Chinese president is a “dictator” after meeting with him in California this week.
“Now, the press doesn’t like it when I say good things about (Xi),” Trump told a crowd of about 1,400 people in a high school gymnasium. “What can I say? He runs 1.4 billion people with an iron hand.”
The Trump rally, officially labeled a “commit to caucus event,” was Trump’s lone event this week in Iowa, the first state to cast votes in the 2024 presidential primary. Hours before the rally began, attendees wrapped around the school in a long line. Several stands selling “Trump 2024” paraphernalia dotted the sidewalks and lawns. Upon entering the high school gymnasium, the scoreboard greeted guests with a not-so-subtle message: The score was 45 to 47, with 20:24 on the clock.
During his remarks, Trump also spoke favorably of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, praising both of them as some of the “strongest leaders” in the world. Later, he bragged about a conversation he once had with Abdul Ghani Baradar, a leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, boasting that Baradar called him “your excellency.”
“He called me ‘your excellency,’” Trump said. “I wonder if he calls Biden ‘your excellency.’”
Biden has called Putin a “murderous dictator”; he has called Orbán a “thug.”
In a speech that lasted over an hour, Trump claimed he is “the only candidate” who can promise to “prevent World War III from happening.” He spent much of his time railing on Biden, calling the incumbent president a “Manchurian candidate,” while repeating the disproven claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. He also poked fun at his Republican challengers and laid out an early agenda for his first day in office, should he be reelected.
Before Trump took the stage, a Baptist pastor offered a prayer, asking God to strengthen Trump as he combats his opponents — “who are really in opposition to you, almighty God.” A state senator, introducing Trump, encouraged attendees to listen to the music that would accompany Trump as he walked onstage, promising listeners that “a sense of peace and calm will come over you.”
As Trump stepped up to the lectern, he was greeted with raucous applause and chants of “U-S-A!”
“This is really what our country’s all about,” he said. “We’re going to bring it back from hell, because right now, we’re in hell.”
Trump referenced the 2020 election multiple times, calling it “rigged” and claiming he won, despite losing the popular vote by over 7 million votes and the Electoral College by 74.
“We won the first (election), and we won the second one even bigger,” he said, the crowd clapping. “We got screwed. We had a rigged election. Our opponents are showing every day that they hate democracy.”
He encouraged his followers to “never forget” the 2020 election, warning that “anybody who doesn’t study history and take it to heart is a fool.”
Known for his use of superlatives, Trump called the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan the “worst period of time” in the history of our country. Under his watch, the economy was “the strongest in history” and the U.S.-Mexico border was “the best border we’ve ever had”; now, under Biden, the border is “the worst border, probably, ever, anywhere in the world.”
With his Republican challengers, too, Trump was unsparing. He pointed to polls that show Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sinking in Iowa and New Hampshire, saying it was “a fall like nobody’s ever seen before.” He later called DeSantis “disloyal” and a “son of a (expletive).” He refused to call Nikki Haley by her name, instead referring to her as “Birdbrain” and slamming her for entering the race after she said she wouldn’t.
DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy gathered for a roundtable event Friday night in Des Moines, where they each stressed the need for a president who could set a good example for the “national character.” Without mentioning them by name, Trump seemed to rebut that idea.
“A lot of people would say, ‘We want Trump policy without Trump, because we don’t like his personality,’” Trump said. “Here’s the problem: Trump policy doesn’t work without Trump, because they’re never going to be able to get it.”
Trump saved his harshest criticisms for Biden, who he called “crooked” and “the worst.” He claimed Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if he were president, and he accused Biden of “weaponizing law enforcement for high-level election interference,” a claim with no substantive evidence.
“The radical left Democrats rigged the presidential election of 2020,” he said. “And we’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election of 2024.”
Trump laid out a plan for his first day in office, claiming he may even set up a “tiny little desk” on the Capitol steps during the inauguration so he can sign “four or five” executive orders. “I’m not going to wait to get to work,” he said.
He claimed he would complete the U.S.-Mexico border wall, a promise he made in 2016 but was never realized due to bureaucratic and political opposition, as well as financial miscalculations. He pledged to reinstate a travel ban for “terror-plagued countries” and to implement “strong ideological screening on all immigrants.” He did not clarify what this screening would look like. “If they hate our country, I don’t want them in our country,” he said.
After Trump concluded his remarks, he hovered near the front of the stage, signing hats and shirts for individuals in the front rows. Attendees cheered and chanted his name.
“I loved it,” Jeff Christensen told me, a middle-aged man who got his T-shirt signed. “It was just really uplifting, positive, bringing the country back to what it used to be. He’s just the best.”
Sarah Tenney, who’s attended twelve Trump events, said Trump was “great, as always.” Tenney noted she’s decided to home-school her five children “because of this woke agenda in public schools.”
Trump continues to maintain a significant lead in national polls of Republican voters, with a 40-percentage-point gap between him and his closest challengers, DeSantis and Haley. In Iowa — the first state to vote, on Jan. 15 — he leads by 25 percentage points.