Former President Donald Trump said Saturday he’s “more committed” to winning back the White House than ever before as he hit the campaign trail for the first time since announcing a third presidential bid in November.
Appearing in New Hampshire before a second stop in South Carolina, Trump said he was “more angry” about the direction of the country and vowed to return to the first-in-the-nation primary state “many, many more times” as he looks to replicate his first-place finish in the Granite State in 2016.
“This is it,” Trump told members of the New Hampshire GOP at their annual meeting in Salem. “We’re starting right here as a candidate for president.”
In South Carolina, meanwhile, Trump pledged that his 2024 campaign would “be about the future” in a speech that largely avoided repeating the lies about the 2020 election that he has been promoting for the past two years.
“This campaign will be about the future. This campaign will be about issues. Joe Biden has put America on the fast track to ruin and destruction and we will ensure that he does not receive four more years,” the former president said at a small event in the Statehouse in Columbia.
On the way to South Carolina, Trump took aim at potential 2024 contender Ron DeSantis, telling reporters aboard his plane that the Florida governor and his team were “trying to rewrite history” regarding their Covid-19 pandemic response. He also called a potential presidential run by his GOP rival “very disloyal.”
Trump also said that Nikki Haley – the state’s former governor who served as his ambassador to the United Nations – called him in recent days to inform him that she is considering launching a 2024 presidential bid.
“I talked to her for a little while, I said, ‘Look, you know, go by your heart if you want to run,’” Trump said. “She’s publicly said that ‘I would never run against my president, he was a great president.’”
Trump said he told Haley that she “should do it.”
Haley, who recently relocated her top aides to Charleston, is said to be weighing the timing of a campaign launch at this point, not wanting to be the first one to take on Trump by herself. In 2021, she said she would not challenge Trump if he ran again for the White House in 2024.
CNN has reached out to DeSantis and Haley for comment.
A return to the trail
Earlier Saturday, Trump’s campaign sent out a fundraising email declaring that “no other candidate is working this early to win every last vote,” and touting himself as “the first Republican presidential candidate to campaign in the two early primary states.”
In New Hampshire, Trump announced that outgoing state GOP Chairman Stephen Stepanek will be added to his campaign as a senior adviser.
Stepanek co-chaired Trump’s first presidential campaign before becoming the top GOP official in New Hampshire, serving two terms. He joins Trump’s team as the three-time presidential contender faces waning support among state officials who are looking for a fresh face to top their party’s ticket.
Trump in his remarks in Salem defended his monthslong hiatus from the trail, decrying media coverage that raised questions about his campaign’s sluggish start with him remaining in Florida since launching his bid in November. He insisted his 2024 campaign isn’t playing “prevent defense,” referring to a strategy used in American football by a team with the lead late in a game.
“They said, ‘He’s not doing rallies, maybe he’s lost that step.’ I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was,” Trump said.
In New Hampshire, Trump also touted his new proposal to eliminate federal funding for schools that “push critical race theory or left-wing gender ideology” and to have parents elect school principals, a plan he referred to as “the ultimate form of local control.”
Second stop of the day
Meanwhile, a who’s who of campaign aides and allies were on hand for Trump’s second campaign stop Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina, including senior advisers Brian Jack and Chris LaCivita and former White House social media director Dan Scavino.
With his podium stationed beneath the Statehouse rotunda and flanked by American flags, the event had all the trappings of a presidential event. It was deliberately chosen to appear that way by the Trump team, which has hoped to capitalize on their candidate’s unique position as a former president, particularly as he prepares to draw challengers in the coming weeks – including, possibly, Haley.
Just across the hallway from Trump’s announcement was the South Carolina House chamber, whose Republican members have approached the former president’s 2024 campaign with a mix of glee and apprehension.
While some have eagerly embraced his bid, others told CNN before the Saturday event that they were waiting to see how the GOP primary field takes shape, especially if Haley and Sen. Tim Scott – two native South Carolinians who are exploring their own White House runs – decide to take on the former president.
Trump was in South Carolina on Saturday to unveil his campaign’s state leadership team, which includes Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham. At the event, he stopped short of falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen, but he did pledge to “restore election integrity” and said, “People have to believe in elections.”
Trump won the South Carolina primary by 10 points in 2016, a feat he hopes to achieve again this cycle. Still, DeSantis, his chief potential rival, is already working to cultivate his own allies in the state, according to one person familiar with the outreach.
“He has a very tight-knit group already established, and they are making calls talking him up,” this person said.
Trump continues to be investigated by the Department of Justice, and special counsel Jack Smith is overseeing the criminal probes into the retention of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and into parts of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. Both investigations implicate the conduct of Trump.
Trump’s Saturday campaign events come in the wake of recent revelations that classified documents were also found at locations tied to both Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a separate special counsel to take over the investigation into the Obama-era classified documents found at Biden’s home and former private office.
Earlier this week, Facebook parent company Meta announced it would restore Trump’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram in the coming weeks, just over two years after suspending him in the wake of the January 6 attack.
This story and headline have been updated.