GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (AP) — Chuck Ricklefs Jr. is a longtime Donald Trump supporter. But before this week, he never attended a Trump rally, wore a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat or contributed to Trump’s campaign.
That all changed when special counsel Robert Mueller completed his investigation into Russian election meddling. In a summary of Mueller’s report, Attorney General William Barr said the special counsel found no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 team.
“It’s done. It’s over with,” said Ricklefs Jr., 65, a chaplain from Saginaw, Michigan, as he stood in line Thursday at his first Trump rally, wearing one of three newly-purchased “MAGA” hats. “Now I’m all in.”
The past week has been a triumphant one for Trump and his supporters. While some, like Ricklefs Jr., had lingering concerns about what Mueller might turn up, many others were certain Trump would be cleared, dismissing the investigation as nothing but a partisan “witch hunt” aimed at delegitimizing Trump’s presidency — and undermining their votes. Trump is counting on this newfound energy to help him win re-election next year.
In his first political event since Mueller wrapped up his probe, Trump traveled to battleground Michigan to rally his supporters. While most interviewed at the event expected the drumbeat of investigations to continue, many expressed hope that the lifted cloud would help the president move on and focus on his agenda. Several said it felt like Trump’s election victory all over again.
“It almost felt better than Election Night,” said Kathy Tyson, 45, of Grand Rapids.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Danette Sherman, 56, an administrative assistant who lives in Northeast Grand Rapids and characterized the investigation as “two years of nonsense” and a “waste of time” despite the fact that it resulted in criminal convictions against Trump’s former campaign chairman, national security adviser and longtime lawyer, along with the indictments of twenty-five Russians on charges related to election interference.
“It’s like having a weight on your ankle, ball and chain, just dragging him from doing everything,” she said of the impact on Trump.
Mueller’s full report has yet to be released, and it could contain damaging information about the president, even if it doesn’t conclude he broke the law.
While the four-page summary released by Barr said Mueller did not find evidence the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, Barr said Mueller had reached no conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice, with evidence on both sides.
“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Barr quoted Mueller as saying.
That didn’t dampen the celebration for Laura Ott, 54, from Stanwood, Michigan. She was at home when the Mueller news broke, and couldn’t contain her excitement, screaming so loud that she excited the family dogs and prompted her adult son to tell her to pipe down from the other room.
“They’re running around, (and I’m) like, ‘Yes, yes, yes! I told you! I told you!'” she said. “We all knew he was innocent.”
There was more doubt for Ricklefs Jr., who said he’d voted for Trump in 2016 and “cheered him on from my couch,” but still felt something holding him back.
“You never know who’s done what in the closet, in the shadows,” he said. But now, “He’s free and clear. In my mind, he’s been totally exonerated … I’m not going to regret any nickel I spend toward him.”
Emily Hartigan-Stein, 30, who works as an accountant in Edina, Minnesota, said that, after watching the drumbeat of the news, you sometimes “start to believe it.”
But now, she said a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
“We’re free. Our president is free and it’s amazing. The man I supported is vindicated,” she said, explaining that she would have been “furious” with herself “if it did turn out that he was, you know, colluding. I’d be so pissed off. But, you know, he’s not. And it’s awesome.”
Hartigan-Stein, a veteran who was injured by an IED while deployed in Afghanistan, said she hoped Trump could “now finally breathe and do the work that we elected him to do without anything in his way.”
She, like others, said those responsible must be held accountable.
“What they’ve done to this president is the most disgusting and vile thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “They need to go down for what they did. It’s clearly a hoax. They knew it was.”
Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj