WILDWOOD, N.J. — Hours after his legal defense team delivered arguments in the impeachment trial, and just as news emerged that Senate Republicans don’t yet have the votes to block likely damning testimony from former White House adviser John Bolton, President Donald Trump stepped on stage at the Wildwoods Convention Center to an adoring crowd of thousands.
He seemed happy to be in friendly territory.
Although New Jersey is a blue state, 58% of voters here in Cape May County voted for the president in 2016. And the House member representing this southern tip of the state, Jeff Van Drew, quit the Democratic Party for the GOP in December and, citing his disapproval of impeachment, pledged his “undying support” for Trump.
The president rewarded Van Drew’s defection at the rally, inviting him on stage.
“They’re trying to steal that election,” Trump said of Democrats’ impeachment, “and Jeff had the guts to defy the left-wing fanatics in his own party and to stand tall in defense of our Constitution, our freedom and democracy itself!”
The crowd cheered.
An army of people in red Make America Great Again hats invaded Wildwood on Tuesday, turning what’s usually a ghost town this time of year into the frontline — albeit for a few hours — of the president’s fight to discredit the historic effort to remove him from office.
Vendors hawking MAGA merchandise set up stands in front of shuttered ice cream shops, vacant hotels and empty mini-golf courses. They took over part of Wildwood’s famed boardwalk, too, selling QAnon pins and “Make Liberals Cry Again” T-shirts, as men in bulldozers down on the desolate beach pushed around mounds of sand to beat back erosion.
Wildwood officials even had to turn the traffic lights back on. With so little traffic during the winter, the town usually keeps the lights blinking yellow. But on Tuesday, hordes of red hats in their cars were made to stop at red lights as they searched the tiny barrier island for parking.
They had come here to show their unwavering support for the president, even as it emerged this week that a forthcoming book from Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton states that the president withheld crucial military aid from Ukraine until that country’s government committed to investigating his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
That the president abused his power in this way is at the heart of the ongoing Senate impeachment trial. On Tuesday evening, just as Trump was set to take the stage in Wildwood, news broke that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told his fellow GOP senators he didn’t have enough votes to block Bolton from testifying at the trial, likely preventing the speedy acquittal the president desired.
But Trump’s supporters in Wildwood seemed unfazed by these developments. Asked by HuffPost about the impeachment, they repeatedly parroted a series of debunked talking points promoted by the president and his allies.
“I think he’s the greatest president of my lifetime,” said Mark Marotta, a retired postal service worker and Army veteran from Oakwell, New Jersey. “And I wanted the opportunity to see him. I like everything he does.”
As for the president withholding military aid from Ukraine? Marotta said Ukraine “got all the money still before the deadline.”
This is a false claim the president has made on multiple occasions. “They got their money long before schedule, they got all their money,” Trump said at a recent press conference in Davos, Switzerland.
But according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the aid to Ukraine was illegally withheld for months. The president didn’t release the funds until a few days after a complaint from a government whistleblower ― the same complaint that kick-started the impeachment process in the House.
Many at Tuesday’s rally claimed Democrats were railroading the president and depriving him of due process.
Jim Richardson, of Berlin, New Jersey, walked around the crowd with a sign hanging around his neck. “F Schiff,” it said, a reference to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager.
“They wouldn’t even let any cross-examinations go?” Richardson said. “What is that? It’s unbelievable.”
The Trump administration has also made this claim about cross-examinations on multiple occasions. On Monday, Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s attorneys, argued during the Senate impeachment trial that “the president was denied the right to cross-examine witnesses.”
Betty Fletcher, a lead customer service associate at a Wawa in Clayton, New Jersey, stood in line outside the convention center with a Trump flag draped across her back like a cape.
She held a sign listing “actual news outlets” and “other entertaining alternatives with conservative voices” that aren’t “fake news.” Among those outlets she trusts for news are the far-right website Blaze News and the pro-Trump personalities Diamond and Silk.
“I think it’s a sham,” Fletcher said of the impeachment. “He’s committed absolutely no crime. … This is the first impeachment trial that’s ever happened that no crime has been committed.”
Trump lawyers, including Alan Dershowitz, have repeatedly attempted during the Senate trial to push this same argument — that abuse of power isn’t a crime and therefore doesn’t warrant impeachment.
But legal scholars — including Dershowitz himself back in 1998 — widely agree that breaking a criminal code is not required in order for the president to be removed from office via impeachment. Even Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, argued in a 2018 memo that Congress can impeach a president for abuse of power.
When Trump ended his rally Tuesday night, he told his supporters that “America is thriving like never before.”
“And ladies and gentlemen of New Jersey, a place I love, the best is yet to come.”
“We’ll make America wealthy again,” he said. “We’ll make America strong again. We’ll make America proud again. We’ll make America safe again. And we’ll make America great again!”
The crowd cheered and filed out of the convention center as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared over the loudspeakers.
Trump spoke a mere 45-minute drive from Atlantic City, where he bankrupted multiple casinos he owned.
Outside, Wildwood was beginning its transformation back into a seasonal ghost town. Cops from departments up and down the coast directed cars back over the bridge to the mainland. Teams of people picked up piles of trash left over from the retreating MAGA army.
Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron said the Trump campaign might stick the town with paying for all the costs of hosting the rally.
“I’ve been informed that Congressmen Van Drew and the President are upset with the fact that I said I think the city should be reimbursed,” Byron said.
“I have no way of knowing what these costs will be,” the mayor added. “These rallies can be pretty expensive.”