Supporters of former President Donald Trump file out of the rally after it was canceled due to threatening weather in Wilmington, N.C., Saturday, April 20, 2024.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump file out of the rally after it was canceled due to threatening weather in Wilmington, N.C., Saturday, April 20, 2024. / AP

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Donald Trump had to cancel his first planned rally since the start of his criminal hush money trial because of a storm Saturday evening in North Carolina, an added complication that highlights the difficulty the former president faces in juggling his legal troubles with his rematch against President Joe Biden.

Trump called into the rally site near the Wilmington airport less than an hour before he was scheduled to take the stage and apologized to a few thousand supporters who had gathered throughout the afternoon under initially sunny skies that later darkened with storm clouds.

Speaking from his private plane, Trump cited lightning and the incoming storm in explaining that he would not be landing. He pledged to reschedule a "bigger and better" event at the same location "as quick as possible."

The planned rally in the critical battleground of North Carolina was to cap a week in which Trump spent four days in a Manhattan courtroom sitting silent during jury selection while Biden was able to hold multiple campaign events in Pennsylvania, another key state in the November election.

The cancellation denied Trump a fresh chance to amplify claims that his multiple pending indictments are an establishment conspiracy to take him down — and, by extension, squelch the voters who first elected him eight years ago.

Now, instead of commanding attention on his own terms at one of his signature mass rallies, his next public appearance is almost certainly going to be Monday, back at the defendant's table for opening arguments in the first felony trial ever for an American president. And his campaign is left to decide when he next can be Trump the candidate instead of Trump the defendant.

"I'm devastated that this could happen but we want to keep everybody safe," Trump said.

The assembled voters expressed frustrations with the turn of events but made clear they understood. Many of them had spent hours ahead of the rally holding prime seats, patronizing food trucks and perusing a row of tents selling Trump memorabilia, including T-shirts featuring the former president's mug shot taken in Atlanta after his indictment on charges that he led a criminal conspiracy to overturn Biden's 2020 victory.

"I've been with Donald Trump and I'm still with Donald Trump, but I'm disappointed he didn't show up," said Cheryl Lynn Johnson, who drove about two hours from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to attend what would have been her fourth Trump rally. "I'm mad at Mother Nature, but I stand behind Trump."

Indeed, the audience was primed to validate Trump's strategy to use his mandated court time to his advantage by folding the proceedings into the same populist, anti-establishment arguments that first fueled his rise eight years ago.

"It's political persecution, and if it were anybody else he wouldn't have to be dealing with it," said Christian Armstrong, a 28-year-old firefighter who lives in Wilmington and was attending his first Trump rally.

LeeAnn Coleman, a 42-year-old who is in a family restaurant business, said, "It's ludicrous that he's having to do this at all," rather than spend time focusing on "all the problems he wants to fix."

Those arguments could have come from Trump himself.

"They want to keep me off the campaign trail," the candidate-turned-defendant insisted earlier this week in Harlem, where he visited a neighborhood convenience store and addressed a throng of media outside after spending the day at his own jury selection. Rather than pursue violent criminals, he alleged, "They go after Trump."

It is not clear when Trump's next campaign appearance will be. His New York trial could last more than a month, severely curtailing his freedom to see voters, fundraise and make calls, and additional court proceedings could follow later in the year. Trump aides have promised weekend rallies and events on Wednesdays, the one weekday that Trump's hush money trial is expected to be in recess. The former president's campaign also has promised additional weeknight appearances around New York, like his trip to Harlem.

But there is no accounting for weather. The closest Trump came to assigning responsibility for the cancellation was to mention "weather officials," but he did not question the decision during his brief remarks.

Even with the cancellation, Trump's choice of venue underscored the importance of North Carolina as a presidential battleground. Trump won here by less than 1.5 percentage points over Biden in 2020, the closest margin of any state Trump won. Saturday would have been the second time in as many months that Trump visited the state. Biden has traveled to North Carolina twice this year; Vice President Kamala Harris has been four times.

"The presidential race is going to run through North Carolina," said Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in a recent interview.

North Carolina is one of seven states that both the Trump and Biden campaigns have said they will dedicate significant campaign resources to winning. Trump has insisted he will widen the map, even into his native New York, which is heavily Democratic. Most Republicans, though, agree that Trump will have a difficult path to an Electoral College majority if Biden were to win North Carolina's 16 electoral votes. Trump tacitly acknowledged North Carolina's status by tapping then-state Republican Chairman Michael Whatley to lead his effective takeover of the Republican National Committee.

Biden's campaign has hired statewide North Carolina leadership and field organizers for offices across the state. That's on top of state party staff that began an organizing program last year ahead of municipal races and looking to this year's statewide contests, which include an open governor's race. Cooper is legally barred from seeking a third term.

"We needed to build energy on the ground early," said state Democratic Chairwoman Anderson Clayton, noting that the last Democratic presidential nominee to win North Carolina — Barack Obama in 2008 — had organized the state in a hotly contested primary campaign that ramped up the previous year.

Matt Mercer, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, countered that Republicans have had veteran staffers on the ground since 2020, and now have a ticket with Trump and Mark Robinson, the Republican nominee for governor, that excites the GOP base. Trump has endorsed Robinson, the state's first Black lieutenant governor, calling him "Martin Luther King on steroids."

Robinson was set to be on stage with Trump in Wilmington.

Ahead of the scheduled rally, Democrats hammered the pairing for their opposition to abortion rights, calling them too extreme for North Carolina.

Cooper predicted Biden's record — low unemployment, rising wages, stabilized inflation, infrastructure and green energy investments — and his support for abortion rights will resonate with a geographically and demographically diverse state.

"Joe Biden did more in his first two years than most presidents hope to do in two terms," Cooper argued.

Mercer said Republicans will answer with a family-first message around the economy and public safety.

"Whether it's with sky-high inflation, the open southern border or the migrant crime crisis," he said, voters are "fed up" with Biden.

Trump lost an opportunity Saturday to make that case himself. But for voters like Matt Mazak, a 32-year-old who described himself as an independent, the verdict already is in.

"I want someone who is not going to go with the flow of D.C.," Mazak said. "I'm not even saying Trump is the right answer. But he's the best we've got."

Tags: North Carolina  trump  biden