Trump, in first post-trial rally, demands appeals courts reverse felony conviction

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump Tower, May 31 in New York. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee addressed the conviction.

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump Tower, May 31 in New York. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee addressed the conviction. (Julia Nikhinson, Associated Press)

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PHOENIX — Former President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail Thursday with a trip to Arizona, his first appearance in a battleground state since he was convicted in a hush money scandal, repeating his critiques of the case against him as politically motivated and calling for his conviction to be overturned on appeal.

"Those appellate courts have to step up and straighten things out, or we're not going to have a country anymore," Trump said at a Phoenix town hall organized by Turning Point, a conservative youth organization that has seen its influence rise alongside Trump's takeover of the GOP.

Trump is expected to appeal last month's conviction on all 34 charges in his New York hush money trial, in which he became the first former American president to be convicted of felony crimes.

He responded defiantly to the verdict against him a day after a New York jury found him guilty last week of a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through a hush money payment to a porn actor but had not spoken directly to the swing-state voters who will decide the November election until Thursday, when he used a profanity to decry the "fake" and politically motivated case against him.

The crowd of thousands inside the megachurch, where bass for the pre-show and introductory music was turned up so high that it shook seats and media camera shots, chanted the same profanity in response.

The Phoenix Police Department said 11 people at the event were transported to hospitals after reports of heat exhaustion. It was 107 degrees Fahrenheit outside when Trump started speaking at the town hall, where many of Trump's supporters were unable to get inside before it reached capacity.

Trump's conviction infuriated his supporters, who pumped tens of millions of dollars into his campaign in the immediate aftermath. Trump blames his conviction on President Joe Biden, though the case was brought by the locally elected district attorney in New York, and many of his allies are calling for revenge.

A 'class struggle'

"What are they going to campaign on?" Juan Arredondo, of Peoria, Arizona, said of the Democrats as he waited to get inside Trump's rally. "They can't campaign on the border. They can't campaign on the economy."

Trump focused much of his hourlong speech and subsequent question and answer session on the U.S.-Mexico border, blaming a litany of problems — from inflation to the long-term health of Social Security — on illegal immigration, characterizing Biden's policies "a deliberate demolition of our sovereignty and our borders."

The influx of foreign-born adults vastly has raised the supply of available workers after a U.S. labor shortage had left many companies unable to fill jobs. The availability of immigrant workers eased the pressure on companies to sharply raise wages and then pass on their higher labor costs to their customers via higher prices that feed inflation, which remains elevated in the U.S. but has plummeted from its levels of two years ago.

Immigrants who work also pay Social Security and other payroll taxes.

Trump found a friendly audience at Turning Point. Led by Charlie Kirk, the group has harnessed the energy of young people drawn to Trump's Make America Great Again movement by cultivating conservative influencers and hosting glitzy events. And it's made Kirk and his allies wealthy.

"The election is now bigger than Donald Trump," Kirk said, casting the stakes in November as a "class struggle between the ruling class and you."

The presidential map

Nowhere is Turning Point's influence greater than in Arizona, the group's adopted home state where its loyalists have taken on prominent roles in the state GOP but have struggled to win general elections. Turning Point's slate of conservative candidates lost in the 2022 midterms, including Kari Lake, who lost the race for governor and is now running for U.S. Senate.

The group is looking to expand its influence this year to other battleground states and got a boost when Trump ousted former Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel in February. She was replaced by Trump's handpicked successor, his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who has spoken positively about working with Turning Point.

Biden won Arizona in 2020 by about 10,000 votes. It was, along with Georgia, one of two states decided by less than half a percentage point and is expected to be close again this year.

Ahead of Trump's visit, Biden's allies in Arizona blamed the former president for overturning the national constitutional right to an abortion and defeating a bipartisan border security bill.

Despite the state's importance on the presidential map, Trump has not campaigned in Arizona since 2022, when he held a rally to support his slate of midterm candidates, all of whom ended up losing.

Trump's trip west includes several private fundraisers and a rally on Sunday in Nevada, another battleground state he lost narrowly in 2020.

Contributing: Jacques Billeaud

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