WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump returned to Washington on Saturday for rallies to back his desperate efforts to subvert the election that he lost to Joe Biden. They cheered as Trump flew overhead on the Marine One helicopter on his way out of town for the Army-Navy football game in West Point, New York.
The gatherings of mostly unmasked Trump loyalists were intended as a show of force just two days before the Electoral College meets to formally elect Biden as the 46th president. Trump, whose term will end Jan. 20, refuses to concede, while clinging to baseless claims of fraud that have been rejected by state and federal courts, and Friday by the Supreme Court.
Trump tweeted his apparent surprise Saturday morning at the rallies, publicly known for weeks: “Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal. Didn’t know about this, but I’ll be seeing them! #MAGA”
Trump left the White House around midday for the trip to the U.S. Military Academy, and as Marine One passed over a rally on the National Mall, cheers went up.
Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser recently pardoned by Trump, was speaking from the stage at the time.
“That’s pretty cool. Imagine just being able to jump in a helicopter and just go for a joy ride around Washington,” said Flynn, whose pardon wiped away his conviction for lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation.
At a pro-Trump demonstration in Washington a month ago, Trump thrilled supporters when he passed by in his motorcade en route to his Virginia golf club.
That demonstration, which drew 10,000 to 15,000 people to the capital, ended with scattered clashes between Trump’s loyalists and local activists near Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House.
On Saturday, police took more steps to keep the two sides apart, closing a wide swath of downtown to traffic and completely restricting Black Lives Matter Plaza. One block away, about 150 anti-Trump protesters rallied, determined to protect the space. Small groups of Trump supporters who entered the area were verbally abused.
A group of about 50 men wearing the black and yellow of the far-right fascist group the Proud Boys circled the perimeter. Police kept them two blocks away from the anti-Trump rally.
The Proud Boys chanted vulgar slogans and at one point started singing “Jingle Bells.” They were apparently under orders not to engage with hecklers. One man who was talking back to people was yelled at and told “Don’t interact!”
A larger contingent of Proud Boys later gathered on the National Mall, within sight of the pro-Trump rally stage but keeping a distance. The group had a more visible presence than during the demonstration on Nov. 14.
The assembly on the mall, called the “Jericho March,” was described on its website as a “prayer rally” with speakers “praying for the walls of corruption and election fraud to fall down.”
A separate rally was held on Freedom Plaza downtown. The organizers seemed intent on avoiding confrontations, telling demonstrators ahead of time to avoid certain hotels and marking off large chunks of downtown Washington as a “no-go zone.”
Sylvia Huff came from Gloucester, Virginia, to show her support for Trump. She said the legal defeats, even Friday’s Supreme Court decision, hadn’t shaken her belief that Trump won the election.
“I believe the courts were on the take, too,” 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 demonstrators not to give up even after Friday’s Supreme Court decision. He said he wanted to send Trump a video and held up his phone, cueing the flag-waving crowd to chant “Stop the Steal.”