September 26, 2023

When Donald J. Trump came to South Dakota in July 2020, then a president in the middle of his re-election campaign, he stood in front of Mount Rushmore and outlined a dark vision of what he claimed his opponents on the left would do to the country.

Three years, an election defeat and four indictments later, Mr. Trump returned on Friday to South Dakota for a rally, where he struck a similar message: that he was the sole bulwark keeping America from falling into ruin.

“They’re just destroying our country,” Mr. Trump told a crowd of roughly 7,000, this time at a hockey arena in Rapid City, S.D. “And if we don’t take it back — if we don’t take it back in ’24, I really believe we’re not going to have a country left.”

Appearing at a large-scale event for the first time since he stood for a mug shot in Georgia late last month, Mr. Trump acknowledged that his circumstances had changed. Yet he referred to the four criminal cases against him proudly — and as an applause line.

“I’m being indicted for you,” Mr. Trump, the front-runner in the G.O.P. presidential primary race, said to the audience. “That’s not part of the job description,” he added, “but I’m being indicted for you.”

Mr. Trump did not mention the Georgia indictment or the booking photo even as his campaign has used it in fund-raising appeals and began selling merchandise with the image as soon as it was released. A smattering of attendees were wearing T-shirts featuring Mr. Trump’s mug shot and the phrase “Never Surrender.”

“The mug shot did good for him,” said Lydia Lozano of Summerset, S.D., who wore Mr. Trump’s mug shot on a blue T-shirt with the outline of an American flag. The charges in Georgia, she added, did not bother her, nor did Mr. Trump’s other indictments.

“They’re just grasping at straws to try and get him to stop running,” Ms. Lozano said. “And he’s running anyway.”

Mr. Trump, too, marveled that his poll numbers in the primary had seemed to rise after his indictments. “I’m the only person in the history of politics who has been indicted whose poll numbers went up,” he said.

Still, polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe his criminal cases were warranted, and some Republicans worry that the 91 total charges against him could hurt him in the general election. Mr. Trump’s legal issues could also create logistical and financial challenges that could make it difficult for him to campaign effectively.

South Dakota, where Republicans have a firm stronghold, is a curious choice for an event during a political campaign. It does not hold an early nominating contest, and it does not qualify as a battleground state. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won the state was 1964.

Still, as Mr. Trump’s campaign has tried to reduce its costs, especially as Mr. Trump’s legal fees mount, it has welcomed opportunities for the former president to attend large-scale events held by other groups rather than staging its own expensive ones.

Friday’s rally was organized by the South Dakota Republican Party. The Republican governor of the state, Kristi Noem — who endorsed Mr. Trump’s campaign in her remarks introducing him — said that organizers had invited other candidates but that Mr. Trump was the only one who had accepted.

Ms. Noem also worked to bring Mr. Trump to Mount Rushmore for the Independence Day celebration in 2020. A looping video of that appearance greeted the crowds filing into the arena on Friday.

Speaking for about 110 minutes, Mr. Trump largely doubled down on his 2020 remarks, repeatedly saying that Democrats were threatening to rewrite history, replace America’s foundational values and deface monuments like Mount Rushmore. But he was less vague on Friday about the perceived threats to the nation, singling out specific political opponents.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a political rival in the Republican primary, was an “unskilled politician” who “sided with the communists” against farmers. Television networks were “evil.” President Biden, he said, was “grossly incompetent and very dangerous,” if not “the most crooked president in history.”

As he has repeatedly, he claimed without evidence that all four cases against him were part of a politically motivated campaign by Mr. Biden. (Two of the cases are being brought by local prosecutors in New York and Georgia, while the two federal cases are being led by an independent special counsel.)

The speakers who preceded him advanced his view.

“How many indictments does it take to steal the presidential election in 2024?” Josh Haeder, South Dakota’s treasurer, rhetorically asked. “Here’s the answer: There’s not enough, because Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States of America.”

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