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Trump returns to Michigan with eyes on a Biden rematch, but legal woes loom over campaign |

Waterford Township, Michigan

Former President Donald Trump returned to the Wolverine State on Saturday with both the Republican presidential race and this crucial 2024 battleground altered considerably since his last visit some five months ago.

Then, Trump swooped in for a rally centered on the auto industry’s striking workforce while avoiding his rivals for the GOP nomination, who were gathered in California for the second primary debate. A 2020 election denier’s tumultuous reign atop the Michigan Republican Party had only recently begun. And many were still guessing how Trump’s mounting legal troubles would play out during a presidential race.

Since then, the strike has ended and the top union representing Michigan autoworkers, United Auto Workers, has endorsed President Joe Biden. All but one of the Republicans on the California debate stage – former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – have dropped out. And the Michigan GOP changed leadership this week amid a dramatic power struggle.

Trump on Saturday addressed his supporters for the first time since a pair of rulings in separate New York cases involving the former president thrust into the spotlight the legal peril he faces on multiple fronts – the latest demonstration of how Trump is navigating a busy court schedule and his campaign calendar.

A New York state judge ruled Thursday that a trial to determine whether Trump falsified business documents to conceal hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels will begin on March 25. Twenty-four hours later, another judge ordered Trump and his companies to pay nearly $355 million for fraudulently inflating his financial statements for a decade.

“Our court system is a mess. What’s happening in our country, they have to straighten it out. All you see is bitterness and revenge and hatred. Judge (Arthur) Engoron just find me $355 million for doing everything right,” Trump said Saturday at a campaign rally here, a day after calling Ergoron’s ruling “a Complete and Total SHAM.”

Meanwhile, the fate of a Georgia election subversion case against Trump and 14 of his allies has been rocked by dramatic testimony this week related to the romantic relationship of two top prosecutors in a hearing to address allegations of self-dealing.

“These people, they’re not looking for justice. They only care about how to stop crooked Joe Biden’s political opponent – that’s me. And how to inflict as much pain as possible,” Trump said in Waterford Township, referring to the Georgia case and his federal election interference case.

These were the dynamics swirling around Trump’s rally in Waterford Township, a Republican-leaning community in the outer Detroit suburbs where he twice won about 53% of the vote. Just as he did in many parts of the state, though, Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in Waterford en route to winning the state by nearly 3 points.

A Fox News survey of registered Michigan voters released this week found no clear leader in a two-way contest between Trump (47%) and Biden (45%).

Trump’s Michigan visit followed an appearance earlier Saturday at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia, where he launched a new sneaker line. The rally also took place 10 days prior to the state’s Republican primary, which is the final February contest before the GOP nominating fight expands to more than two dozen states in March.

Trump is not expected to return to the state before the primary, a source familiar with his plans told CNN. Haley, intensely focused on engineering a strong performance ahead of her home state’s February 24 primary, has yet to make an appearance in Michigan, where Trump is the heavy favorite.

Ahead of his visit, Trump and his allies sought to put an end to turmoil within the Michigan Republican Party, which has faced a reckoning over its readiness for the 2024 election.

The state party ousted its chair, Kristina Karamo, last month in the face of internal strife and lackluster fundraising. Karamo, an unsuccessful 2022 candidate for secretary of state who spread baseless claims about fraud in the 2020 election, had served as party chair for less than a year. She claimed the vote to oust her was illegitimate and attempted to retain control.

On Wednesday, a panel within the Republican National Committee ratified Pete Hoekstra, a former congressman and US ambassador to the Netherlands under Trump, as the Michigan GOP’s new chairman. Trump had endorsed Hoekstra in a January 26 social media post.

The turmoil has threatened organizational efforts just as Michigan is expected to play a leading role in the 2024 election. In addition to a heated battle for the White House, Republicans have an opportunity to flip the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and there are a handful of competitive House races as well.

“I don’t think there’s a path to the presidency that doesn’t include winning Michigan. It’s ground zero,” Jason Cabel Roe, a longtime Republican strategist and former head of the Michigan GOP, said before the rally. “There are so many opportunities here. Unfortunately, it’s also ground zero for the dysfunction of the Republican Party.”

Trump’s campaign agrees with the sentiment and plans to build out a robust campaign operation in the state in the coming months, two senior advisers told CNN.

“If we win Michigan, we win the whole ballgame. We win everything,” Trump told his supporters Saturday.

Intraparty turbulence is not the only challenge Trump must overcome in Michigan. His efforts to win over union households – a key constituency in the state – have received mixed reception.

Trump on Saturday stoked fears about migrants crossing the US-Mexico border and argued that such an influx would negatively affect union workers.

“The biggest threat to your unions is millions of people coming across the border, because you’re not going to have your jobs anymore,” the former president said.

He also claimed that “organized criminal squads of illegal alien gang members” were breaking into Michigan homes after dark and “plundering” them, saying that Biden “allowed this to happen.”

“We will call it from now on Biden migrant crime. … Let’s call it ‘Bigrant,’” he said.

During his September visit to the state – when he appeared at a nonunion factory amid the autoworker strike – Trump courted blue-collar workers by promising to reverse Biden-era policies that encouraged the auto industry’s move toward electric vehicles, insisting it would threaten American jobs. He also made a play for Big Labor’s support, telling his crowd, “Do me a favor, just get your union guys, your leaders, to endorse me. And I’ll take care of the rest.”

Last month, the United Auto Workers endorsed Biden, who became the first president to join a picket line when he appeared with striking workers in Michigan the day before Trump’s visit.

Trump, who has encouraged union workers not to pay their dues, responded by calling UAW President Shawn Fain “a weapon of mass destruction” for autoworkers.

“Get rid of this dope & vote for DJT,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform at the time, referring to himself by his initials.

Fain in response said he doesn’t “care what Donald Trump says about me.”

“I care about facts,” Fain said. “And the facts are very clear for the large majority of Americans: The working-class people have been left behind by Trump’s billionaire class, the billionaire buddies, and the economy only works for the wealthy.”

Last month, Trump met with Teamsters union leaders and members in Washington, DC. The roundtable discussion at the Teamsters’ headquarters touched off some dissent inside the union, with one executive board member denouncing Trump as “a known union buster, scab, and insurrectionist.”

But Trump’s campaign believes it can drive a wedge between Biden and organized labor. It has made appealing to union members a key part of its strategy to win over working-class voters, especially in battleground Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – all three of which broke for Biden in the 2020 election after backing Trump four years earlier.

Trump’s share of the vote of union households fell from 48% in 2016 to 37% in 2020, according to CNN exit polls. The recent Fox News survey from Michigan found Biden leading Trump 53% to 41% among union households. Regaining that support could prove key to turning Michigan red again in 2024.

Attacking Fain on the heels of a major labor victory for Michigan autoworkers, however, may run counter to those efforts, Cabel Roe said.

“There’s still real opportunities for Trump and Republicans with UAW households, but I don’t think you can ignore that Fain was successful in extracting concessions from the Big Three (automakers) and his pugilistic style won him some fans,” he said. “And you have to give him credit for the victory.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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