GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Former President Donald Trump returned to the stage on Saturday night, delivering a speech at the North Carolina Republican Party State Convention, and claiming America is backsliding under President Joe Biden.
"It's great to be back in Greenville with so many proud, North Carolina patriots who love our country, support our military, respect our police, honor our flag and always put America first, we don't put America second," Trump said as he opened his speech. "As we gather tonight, our country is being destroyed before our very own eyes."
The 90-minute speech sounded much like one from Trump's 2020 campaign, touting the accomplishments of the administration, including development of the COVID-19 vaccine, Wall Street's rise, building the border wall and curtailing immigration and his tough stance on Iran and China.
Trump's speech in Greenville, North Carolina, was his first political appearance outside his new home state of Florida since he left office in January. In late February, he delivered the keynote address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando where he teased a 2024 comeback bid while promoting the false claim that the November election was "rigged" against him.
Since then, the former president has only doubled down on spreading conspiracies about the election, backing so-called "audits" in Arizona and Georgia and calling for others in the battleground states he lost. Official, nonpartisan audits have already taken place in any closely contested state and found no irregularities that would change the results.
Trump referred to "bad things" happening in the 2020 election, while saying the GOP would have a "tremendous 2022" in the midterm elections. Trump teased -- slightly -- a 2024 run as well.
"We're going to win North Carolina's all important U.S. Senate race, and we're going to lay the groundwork for making sure that Republicans once again carry the great state of North Carolina, in a number, a year, that I very much look forward to: 2024," he said.
Trump introduced his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, the wife of his son Eric, to the stage briefly, at which point she announced she would not be running for senator in North Carolina. The Carolina native said she wasn't ruling out a run in the future, though.
Rep. Ted Budd, who represents the 13th Congressional District, announced Saturday night he will be running for the seat. Trump endorsed Budd for the seat, as Republican Richard Burr announced he will not be running for reeelction.
As the United States seems to be turning the corner of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than half of the country's population now immunized with at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the former president claimed vindication for elevating the theory early in the pandemic that the deadly virus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
That theory, once called "extremely unlikely" by the World Health Organization, has reemerged in recent weeks as a potentially legitimate explanation for how the pandemic began.
"We had this horrible thing come in from China. And we got that one right too, by the way. Did you see what's going on over the last -- with the lab? Wuhan. That was an easy one," Trump said.
Late last month, President Joe Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to "redouble their efforts" and submit another report within 90 days about the origins of this coronavirus, including "specific questions for China."
While there has been interest in investigating a leak from the lab, White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Thursday that it was "quite far-fetched" that China deliberately engineered the virus.
Trump said the U.S. and the world should "demand reparations and accountability" from China, adding, "They must pay." He said China should pay countries of the world "a minimum of $10 trillion" for the damage from COVID-19.
Trump's speech came a day after Facebook announced the former president would continue to be banned from using the company's platforms, which includes Instagram, through at least January 2023 -- meaning he will be unable to wield his one-time social media prowess through the 2022 midterm cycle.
"They may allow me back in two years -- I'm not too interested in that," Trump said, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as "a beauty."
Following the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, Facebook initially suspended Trump's accounts indefinitely over concerns his posts were inciting violence. Twitter permanently banned Trump from using its platform on Jan. 8 "due to the risk of further incitement of violence."
His most recent outlet, the blog section of his website where his post-presidency statements were posted, was shut down this past week after being live for barely a month.
"I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy, I am the one trying to save it. Please remember that," Trump said to loud applause.
Trump's supporters gathered early in the day outside the Greenville Convention Center, some carrying "Trump 2020" flags while others were already displaying "Trump 2024: I'll Be Back" banners. Many wore "Trump won" hats, being sold outside the arena. About 1,200 attendees were expected in the room for Trump's speech. The NCGOP said it was the single-largest fundraiser in the group's history.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, herself a possible 2024 GOP presidential candidate, spoke earlier in the day at the convention.
Trump's return to the podium on Saturday also came two days after his vice president, Mike Pence, spoke at the Hillsborough County Republican Committee's annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire. The state holds the nation's first primary in 2024, though Pence has yet to announce a run despite speculation after previously visiting fellow early primary state South Carolina.
Pence largely touted what he saw as the Trump administration's successes, though he did say he diverged from the president on his feelings about the Jan. 6 riot -- consistently downplayed by Trump.
"President Trump and I've spoken many times since we left office," Pence told the crowd in Manchester. "And I don't know if we'll ever see eye to eye on that day. But I will always be proud of what we accomplished for the American people over the last four years."