DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gone was the helicopter, but Donald Trump on Saturday renewed his reputation for defying norms and creating a mega-celebrity’s spectacle at the Iowa State Fair.
Trump, in fewer than two hours on the steaming fairgrounds in Des Moines, attracted thousands of sweating, chanting supporters to his stops at the Iowa Pork Producers tent, a baby farm animal exhibit and a popular Grand Concourse pub.
All the while, Trump not-so-subtly tried to set himself apart from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s main rival with more than five months until Iowa’s leadoff caucuses and who was on the fairgrounds at the same time.
Just as DeSantis and his family were wrapping up their day at the fair, meeting with Iowa Republican leaders and activists, Trump descended into the huge scrum of backers accompanied by about a dozen Florida U.S. House members, a shot at DeSantis who is making an aggressive pitch to Iowa Republicans.
Trump spoke little to the public in his short time at the fair, except to talk individually to some fairgoers. However, he repeated during remarks to hundreds crammed into the fair favorite “Steer and Stein” the disproven claim that the 2020 election was “rigged,” and that “we got millions and millions more votes.”
Instead, while most candidates seeking caucus support tout Iowa political endorsements, Trump spent most of his public remarks introducing Florida lawmakers who traveled with him to Iowa. The effort, Trump aides said, demonstrates feelings of those who know DeSantis best, but also clearly stoke outrage among those who feel the former president has been persecuted with the two federal indictments he now faces.
“So to all my friends in Iowa when you see them come for this man, know that they are coming for this movement, and they are coming for all of us,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
Before taking his three children to ride bumper cars and the Ferris wheel, DeSantis boasted about the delegation of state lawmakers in Iowa that flanked him when reporters asked about the Florida representatives surrounding Trump.
“I think it’s fine to bring folks in from Washington, but I think Iowans really are more concerned about the people in their communities,” he said.
DeSantis and other candidates at the fair called out Trump for his criticism of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has taken a pledge of neutrality and hosted a series of one-on-one conversations that most GOP candidates accepted but Trump declined.
“That’s just how he operates, to attack one of the best governors in the country,” DeSantis said. “I think as Republicans we should be thankful and proud to see other Republicans doing well.”
Most candidates effused praise on Reynolds throughout their appearances at the fair and enjoyed her company on walks around the fairground or flipping pork burgers.
Former Vice President Mike Pence said he was “for Governor Kim Reynolds before it was cool.” Business entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy encouraged fairgoers to give her a round of applause.
Trump also sought to soothe tension between him and Reynolds Saturday even though he didn’t appear with her. But in addressing the drama with Reynolds, Trump repeated his claim that he was responsible for her election. Trump campaigned with Reynolds during her 2018 bid, which she won narrowly. She won reelection by a much larger margin in 2022.
“I have a very nice relationship with her,” he said. “I got her elected.”
For Trump’s team, there was not a trace of concern in the air — given the concentration of supporters, the range of ages and the sea of Make America Great Again hats — about Trump’s indictment this month on federal felony changes he worked to overturn the 2020 election in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Stopping briefly to talk to reporters, he declined to say whether he would comply with a protective order by the judge overseeing the election conspiracy case, limiting what the former president can publicly say about evidence in the investigation as he campaigns.
“I’ll have to take a look at the order,” Trump said. “The whole thing is a fake — it was put out by Biden, because they can’t win an election the fair way.”
Asked later whether he would agree to plead guilty to lesser charges, Trump called the reporter “a wise guy.” “We don’t do plea deals,” he said.
In 2015, as the emerging Republican presidential nominee, Trump commanded attention at the fair by offering children rides on his personal helicopter. In suit and tie, the then-TV celebrity and New York real estate executive cut a far different figure than candidates typically in jeans and cowboy boots.
In just as brazen style Saturday, Trump’s Boeing 757 circled the fairgrounds ahead of his landing just as DeSantis was manning the grill at the Iowa Pork Producers tent.
It was one of several episodes this year in Iowa where Trump has sought to outshine DeSantis while both were in the state. DeSantis trails Trump in national and Iowa polls but is viewed still early in the race as his strongest potential challenger and has recently accelerated his Iowa outreach in an attempt to land an early blow against the former president who remains extremely popular within the GOP base.
Cheers of “Trump, Trump, Trump” erupted at the three stops the former president made — in a blue suit, but this time in an open-collared shirt — trudging shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.
Though so much of Trump’s stop was out of the ordinary, at the pork tent, he bowed to state fair protocol.
He held a pork chop on a stick up to the crowd and waved it.