At Georgia rally, Trump says his policies would have prevented Laken Riley’s death

He met with the slain nursing student’s family and friends before the event
Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks about slain nursing student Laken Riley during a rally at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024, as supporters hold up signs with her photo. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks about slain nursing student Laken Riley during a rally at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024, as supporters hold up signs with her photo. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

ROME – Former President Donald Trump tried to tap into the fury from his party’s conservative base over Laken Riley’s killing, using his first Georgia rally of the general election campaign to eviscerate President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

As the crowd at the Forum River Center waved placards with Riley’s picture, Trump said his vow to seal the U.S. border and crackdown on illegal migrant crossings would have prevented the 22-year-old nursing student’s death.

He criticized Biden for remarks in Atlanta that he said amounted to “apologizing” to her suspected killer. He then turned to Riley’s parents, whom he met privately before he spoke: “To her family tonight, I promise you I will demand justice for Laken.”

Trump’s focus on Riley underscored how her Feb. 22 killing has become a flashpoint in the presidential race. A Venezuelan native who entered the U.S. illegally was charged with her murder.

Biden, who held his own rally in Atlanta on Saturday, has countered that Republicans squandered the chance to pass a tough bipartisan border deal at Trump’s urging.

Trump’s remarks went beyond the immigration debate, as he worked to energize Republicans and appealed to “disaffected Democrats” to flip Georgia back into the GOP column.

The state voted Democratic in 2020 for the first time in nearly three decades, and Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s victory is at the center of ongoing Fulton County racketeering trial.

Trump vowed to reverse Biden’s clean energy tax incentives, slash taxes, and repeated lies about widespread election fraud. And he criticized Biden’s “angry” State of the Union address, which was hailed by Democrats as a pivotal movement in his reelection bid.

Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Joe Biden should not be shouting angrily at America,” he said. “America should be shouting angrily at Joe Biden.”

And as he has at other stops, he accused Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis of orchestrating a political prosecution and mocked the pronunciation of her name.

“Fulton County has to clean up its act,” Trump said, referring to a pending motion to disqualify Willis and her office from pursuing the charges: “Hopefully they’re going to end the case.”

Battleground Georgia

From the start of the event, Trump made clear that immigration was on his mind.

Shortly after he took the stage, Trump referred to an interview Biden gave to MSNBC in Atlanta in which he expressed remorse for the way he described Riley’s suspected killer during his nationally televised address.

“I shouldn’t have used illegal, it’s undocumented,” he said.

To roars from the crowd that packed the convention hall, Trump said he had no problem calling the suspect an “illegal alien.”

“He was an illegal immigrant. He was an illegal migrant, and he shouldn’t have been in our country, and he never would have been under the Trump policy.” Trump said. “And Biden should be apologizing for apologizing to this killer.”

Before Trump spoke, a mix of one-time GOP politicos and the leaders of a new generation of MAGA adherents took turns addressing the rowdy crowd.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks at a rally for Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue made one of his first public appearances since he was beaten by Gov. Brian Kemp in the 2022 primary, telling the audience his sole mission is “making damn sure that Donald J. Trump is the next president.”

But the crowd seemed more attuned to the current officials who are in Trump’s favor. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper and Brian Jack, a congressional candidate, each took turns at the mic.

The loudest applause went to U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who helped organize the rally in the heart of her congressional district. The crowd chanted “MTG” as she took the stage, and applauded as she recalled heckling Biden during the State of the Union.

Just as notable were those who didn’t attend the rally. Kemp, Insurance Commissioner John King, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Attorney General Chris Carr all skipped the event. The four each prevailed over Trump-backed opponents in 2022.

But in a vivid symbol of Trump’s ability to bend the will of his party, three of those figures – Carr, Kemp and King – each have said they’ll support Trump’s comeback bid now that he’s the GOP nominee. (Raffensperger is staying neutral in the race, citing his role as the state’s top elections official.