President Trump launched his reelection bid Tuesday by calling his presidency a “defining moment” in American history and pleading for another four years to finish off a Washington swamp that is “viciously” safeguarding its clout.
Rallying in the battleground state of Florida, Mr. Trump fixated on Democrats in ominous terms, accusing a cabal of opponents of trying to upend the American way of life and revert to a nation that fails to put “its own citizens first.”
“They want to destroy you and destroy our country as we know it. Not acceptable, it’s not going to happen,” he told supporters at Orlando’s Amway Center, which seats nearly 20,000.
First lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, attended the raucous event, which featured chants of “four more years” and “USA! USA!” from a red sea of supporters in “MAGA” caps. He road-tested his old slogan about making America great versus “Keep America Great,” with the latter seeming to win out with deafening cheers.
“My eardrums will never be the same,” the president joked, holding his hands over his ears on stage. “I’m sorry, MAGA country, but that wasn’t too close.”
Mr. Trump said voters would be crazy not to reward him for two and a half years of progress in creating jobs, gutting Obamacare, appointing conservative judges and building a border wall with Mexico.
He urged supporters to hit the ballot box in November 2020 to help him continue his momentum, as he works out a series of thorny trade deals with North American neighbors, China and others.
“Vote, vote, vote,” he said. “This time, we’re going to finish the job.”
More than two years into the job, Mr. Trump says he remains a Beltway outsider who’s had to contend with unflattering press coverage, a long-running Russia probe and polls that — like in 2016 — don’t fully capture his support, as a string of surveys show him losing to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden or about tied with other Democratic contenders in key states.
Mr. Trump fixated on his grievances Tuesday, saying special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe robbed the American people of time and treasure while his old foe — Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — didn’t face charges for her use of a personal email server.
The 2020 kickoff comes roughly four years after Mr. Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower to launch his first White House bid. Pundits derided him as a sideshow, though he captivated audiences, swept away a crowded GOP primary field and bested Mrs. Clinton in the Electoral College.
Mr. Trump hasn’t really stopped campaigning since then, and his kickoff revived theme music, attacks on the media and other talking points from his latest string of rallies in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Yet the president offered special praise for Florida, suggesting he turned down the chance to go elsewhere.
Loaded with 29 electoral votes, the state was critical to Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory and is pivotal to his 2020 fortunes. It’s notorious for photo finishes, with key races this coming down to less than 1 percent of the vote.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday said Mr. Trump trails Mr. Biden — who the president dubbed “Sleepy Joe” — by 9 percentage points and is losing to Sen. Bernard Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren by 6 and 4 points, respectively. Susan MacManus, a politics professor emerita at the University of South Florida, said by planting his flag along the Interstate Highway 4 corridor, the president is challenging his potential rivals to a bare-knuckle brawl over the state.
“He realizes that Florida is a symbol to the rest of the country of competitiveness. This is the big prize of the swing states,” she said.
The president is familiar with the terrain — his winter hideaway, Mar-a-Lago, is in Palm Beach — and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a conservative Republican, is a White House ally.
“My second home,” Mr. Trump mused before the Florida crowd.
The Orlando area, in particular, is home to a growing Latino population and Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria.
Mr. Trump has struggled to make inroads among Latino voters, due to his strident rhetoric on immigration and reluctance to free up more disaster funding for Puerto Rico. He insists he took care of the island, however, and is catering to Florida’s robust Cuban and Venezuelan communities by linking the Democrats’ most liberal ideas on climate and health care to the socialist autocrats they fled.
A major Florida newspaper — the Orlando Sentinel — rained on Mr. Trump’s parade by announcing a non-endorsement of the president Tuesday, saying whoever runs against the incumbent will be better-suited for the job.
“Because there’s no point pretending we would ever recommend that readers vote for Trump. After 2½ years we’ve seen enough,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.
A literal downpour soaked supporters waiting for the big show in Orlando, where vendors crowded in hawk buttons, shirts and hats extolling Mr. Trump and his efforts to build a border wall.
Still, Tuesday’s adulation offered Mr. Trump a reprieve from turmoil Washington, where saber-rattling with Iran and Patrick Shanahan’s withdrawal from consideration as defense secretary threatened to overshadow his party.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called on Mr. Trump to scratch his campaign kickoff speech and instead brief the country about his plans toward Iran, where tensions are growing with the U.S. accusing the Islamic Republic of attacks on oil shipping.
“It’s not just senators. All the American people are scratching their heads, what the heck is going on,” Mr. Schumer told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Democrats on Tuesday for rejecting a closed-door briefing from the State Department on the ongoing situation.
Mr. Schumer confirmed that move. He said a briefing wasn’t a substitute for hearing from the president.
Mr. Trump says his biggest problem is that Democrats would rather see him fail than do great things for the country.
He said they tried to destroy his pick for the Supreme Court, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and is trying to “take down our incredible movement.”
“We are not going back,” he said.
Top Democrats, meanwhile, said the only thing the U.S. cannot afford is another four years of a Trump presidency.
In a statement, Mr. Biden said the president has failed on health care and climate change, while tearing children from their parents at the border.
“Donald Trump is launching his campaign for re-election tonight and the American people face a choice,” Mr. Biden said. “We can make Trump an aberration or let him fundamentally and forever alter the character of this nation.”
• Bailey Vogt and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.