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Donald Trump returns to Michigan to back his candidates, prepare for ‘24

Former President Donald Trump drew thousands of supporters Saturday at the Michigan Starts Sports Center in rural Washington Township. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

April 12: Trump favorite Matt DePerno back in court, seeks another Antrim County audit

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP—Former President Donald Trump spoke to thousands of loyal fans Saturday night in Macomb County, but his intended audience was a more specific crowd.

Trump used the raucous rally to appeal to Michigan Republican Party precinct delegates, who will vote to formally endorse GOP nominees for attorney general and secretary of state at an April 23 convention

Trump urged delegates to support Matt DePerno and Kristina Karamo, attorney general and secretary of state hopefuls who were early joiners of his ongoing crusade to delegitimize the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden.

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"This is not just about 2022, this is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen again in 2024," Trump said after inviting DePerno and Karamo to join him on stage at the Michigan Starts Sports Center in rural Washington Township.

"These two positions are so important — and it's not just the election," the former president told the crowd. "It's crime in your state. It's a lot of different things."

DePerno, an attorney from Portage who is seeking to be the state's top law enforcement officer, urged GOP precinct delegates to "storm" county conventions later this month to help make him the party's attorney general nominee.

"This is what the MAGA movement is about," DePerno said. "No longer will we allow the elites in our country to control elections, and to control us."

Experts say Trump's return to Michigan — and the slew of endorsements he has already made in the state — signifies his continued quest to maintain control of the Republican Party ahead of a possible 2024 presidential run. 

Trump scored a surprise Michigan victory in 2016, narrowly defeating Hillary Clinton en route to the White House. He lost Michigan to President Joe Biden by 154,188 votes in 2020, a defeat he continues to publicly contest despite failing to request an official recount. 

While he's not personally on the ballot this fall, Trump put his "reputation on the line" by endorsing Michigan candidates, particularly DePerno, said John Sellek of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, who worked on GOP former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s campaigns. 

DePerno appears to be locked in an "incredibly close” convention race with former House Speaker Tom Leonard and, if he loses, "the national media will pick up on that quickly as a sign that (Trump's) influence is waning," Sellek told Bridge.

State Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, is also seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general. Along with the secretary of state contest, the AG race will be decided at a GOP convention rather than the August primary election.

The contest has turned nasty in recent weeks, with Trump panning Leonard as an “absolute embarrassment to the GOP” in a letter to Michigan precinct delegates. On Saturday, Trump called Leonard a "RINO" — Republican in name only. He claimed he did not know Leonard — even though he nominated Leonard to be a U.S. Attorney in 2019, when Trump was president — but said he has heard "horrible things."

A mysterious group called the “Integrity and Honor Fund” fired back this week, calling DePerno a “grifting loser” in a television ad that aired in the Florida market where Trump lives, an apparent attempt to convince the president to drop his endorsement. 

As Bridge Michigan first reported, DePerno was fired from his former law firm in 2005 amid allegations he “padded” client billings. Leonard has also called on DePerno to disclose what happened to nearly $400,000 he raised for an Antrim County election lawsuit he lost but has appealed. 

Leonard’s campaign had “nothing to do” with the anti-DePerno ad that aired in Florida, said spokesperson Jeremiah Ward. “We are focused on reaching delegates and unifying the Republican Party behind Tom's law enforcement record and rule-of-law message."

Leonard has faced questions of his own over campaign finance issues, including a scheme that allowed donors to exceed individual contribution limits by donating large sums to a PAC, which pumped similarly large sums into his campaign, as first reported this week by Bridge. 

While Leonard was the party's nominee for attorney general in 2018 and has secured a number of high-profile endorsements this year, DePerno is backed by both Trump and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock.

That "absolutely" gives him an upper hand in the attorney general’s race, said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell Research & Communications.

DePerno's "whole campaign is based on the fact that he is the Trump-endorsed candidate,” Mitchell said. The Michigan GOP "never left Trump. It’s been a strong Trump state all along, and it continues to be.”

‘The greatest president’

Supporters spent hours in line to access the rally, and it appeared hundreds – if not thousands – were unable to enter once the facility reached its 6,000-person capacity. 

Some of those who did make it inside wore “Trump won” or “Trump before 2024” t-shirts, calling him their president.  

Democrats panned Trump’s visit as another step in his "dangerous" quest to undo the 2020 election. The former president's theories, they said, inspired his loyalists to storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block certification of Biden's victory. 

“Election deniers” want to “take over our statewide offices so that they can potentially be in position to block or undo or fail to certify election results that they disagree with in the future,” Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic incumbent Secretary of State, said this week in a press call ahead of the Trump rally. 

"The threats against our democracy are truly a five-alarm fire, and in that fire, Michigan is ground zero," Benson said.

In his roughly two-hour speech on Saturday, Trump touched on familiar themes from his past campaigns. He railed on immigration and economic policies under Democratic leadership. He blamed Biden for inflation, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and record gas prices that followed. 

"All of this is a consequence of the rigged election," the former president said, returning to his claim of widespread fraud that a Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee found non-existent.

Michigan's Constitution, as amended by voters in 2018, guarantees the right to absentee and mail-in ballots, but Trump argued that anytime you allow voting by mail, "you can guarantee you have a corrupt election."

DePerno, who joined the former president on stage, called Trump "the greatest president we have had in this country" and touted his own credentials as a national figure in Trump's quest to overturn the 2020 election. 

"Nobody knows more about this than me," DePerno said, referencing his lawsuit over election results in Antrim County, where he alleged Dominion voting machines were rigged against Trump. 

Officials and independent experts say a human error by the GOP clerk in Antrim County led to initially skewed results that favored Biden. The vote tallies were corrected before official certification, and a hand recount later confirmed those results.

If elected, DePerno promised to investigate Nessel, Benson and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer "for all the damage they have done" in office the past three years, prompting "lock her up chants" from the crowd. 

Karamo, running to be the state's top elections officer, gained national attention in 2020 by claiming to witness fraud at Detroit's absentee counting board. She's been a featured speaker at recent rallies calling for a "forensic audit" of that contest. 

In a fiery speech at the Trump rally, Karamo called election integrity a "national security issue" and blasted Benson as an "authoritarian leftist who treats the people of Michigan like the unwashed masses."

"Last time I checked, according to my First Amendment right, I have the right to redress my grievances to my government without being called an insurrectionist, without being called a Big Lie proponent," Karamo said. 

‘RINO hunting’

The Michigan Republican Party will officially endorse attorney general and Secretary of State candidates at its April 23 convention. But to a "large extent," those races could actually be decided at county conventions scheduled for April 11, said Sellek, the GOP strategist.  

Those local conventions are "super important" because they are where party activists will decide which delegates they send to the state convention for the endorsement vote, he said, calling them a “turnout battle" among candidates.

Republican insiders believe Karamo is the favorite for the party’s Secretary of State nomination. She is competing against state Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain and Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry. 

In the attorney general race, Leonard "has run an extraordinary convention race by traditional standards" Sellek said. But Trump "is not a traditional standard, so he may overrule all those things."

Joseph Dofs, a GOP precinct delegate in St. Clair County — which Trump won by 30 points in 2020 — told Bridge that Trump's endorsements won't be the deciding factor for him in the attorney general and Secretary of State races. 

"At a certain level, I always vote — or try to — with character," Dofs said. 

Trump's claims about the 2020 election are "not accurate or true," Dofs said, but the former president represents "who we are as America," he continued. "Whether he runs (in 2024) or not, he started what 'We the people' is all about." 

Elizabeth Fohey, a 75-year-old rally volunteer from Troy, said she already made up her mind to support Karamo and DePerno — two outsiders without political experience. 

"I don't trust politicians," Fohey said. "There are just two people I totally trust. One of them is Kristina Karamo, and the other is Matt DePerno."

With the statewide convention vote looming, DePerno and his allies have begun to focus more on county conventions in recent weeks, including Saturday, when he urged grassroots Republicans to "storm" the local meetings. 

"We're going to take back this state, and we're going to take back this country," he said to applause. 

In a recent mailer to precinct delegates, a super PAC supporting DePerno urged them to go to county conventions and "help President Trump hunt RINOs like Tom Leonard,” referring to his chief opponent as a Republican in name only. 

“Ask every candidate running if they support Trump-Endorsed candidates Matt DePerno and Kristina Karamo,” read the mailer from the True Michigan PAC, which formed in February and has not yet had to report donors.

“If they say no—they are a RINO!”

Following county conventions on April 11, delegates sent to the statewide convention will vote to endorse attorney general and Secretary of State candidates on April 23 in Grand Rapids. 

The Michigan GOP traditionally uses vote tabulators to calculate results, but  because Republican activists are increasingly wary of voting machines, the party created a new process to verify results through a "full hand count audit."

"The process will be very secure," Karamo told reporters before the Trump rally. "There will be absolute chain-of-custody cross-checks."

Trump's interest in the convention races is clear, said Mitchell, the GOP pollster: 

“He wants his candidates to win. He wants to demonstrate the hold he has over the party."

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