Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called the Russia investigation "a total fabrication" and "an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics" at a rowdy rally Thursday soon after news broke that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had convened a criminal grand jury.

Blaming Democrats even as the Justice Department special counsel has advanced his investigation, Trump said, "It just makes them feel better when they have nothing else to talk about."

He prompted an overflow crowd of supporters in a 9,000-capacity Huntington, W.Va., arena to chant, "Lock her up!" and then paused to encourage their taunts at Hillary Clinton, his 2016 Democratic rival, just as he first did more than a year ago at the Republican convention that nominated him for president.

"What the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton's 33,000 deleted emails," he said, his voice rising as the crowd grew more excited.

Trump had said after the election that he no longer wanted the Justice Department to investigate Clinton, months after the FBI had already declined to do so after a lengthy look at her emails. But as the investigation into his campaign's potential collusion with Russia's election meddling, and his own possible obstruction of justice, has gained steam, Trump has renewed his complaints about Clinton — a unifying villain to his core supporters.

Trump also seemed to narrow the scope of his defense against the allegations, now that it is known that his son Donald Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort met last year with a Russian attorney said to have incriminating material against Clinton provided by the Russian government.

Trump previously has insisted that no one in his campaign had met with any Russians. On Thursday, he simply said Russians were not in his campaign.

"Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign," Trump said. "There never were. We didn't win because of Russia. We won because of you."

Trump, who propelled his political ascent by tapping into working-class voters' sense of grievance, hit the familiar themes in West Virginia. Yet he did so in service of uniting his impassioned supporters against Congress, which is led by his party, and against federal prosecutors.

They are not only undermining the legitimacy of his election, Trump said, but in doing so demeaning the voters who put him in office. West Virginia, which he won by more than 40 percentage points, provided a near perfect backdrop.

"Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania? Are there any Russians here tonight, any Russians?" he said, pausing so the appreciative crowd could take in the sarcasm.

"They can't beat us at the voting booths so they're trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want," he said.

It's a strategy Trump has used from the beginning of the Russia investigation, to solidify his base of supporters as a bulwark against political and legal threats, and one that he is likely to rely on more heavily assuming the inquiry progresses.

"They're trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us," he said. "And most importantly, demeaning to our country."