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Trump returns to South Dakota, recalling a defining moment in his presidency

Former President Donald Trump pumps his fist at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020.
SAUL LOEB
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AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump pumps his fist at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020.

It was a pivotal moment in Donald Trump's presidency, when on the eve of Independence Day in 2020, he flouted social distancing guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and instead delivered a speech, attended by thousands, criticizing social justice protests at the foot of Mount Rushmore.

While South Dakota rarely attracts campaign stops by presidential candidates, Trump is expected to return to the state as a candidate once again on Friday.

The GOP presidential front-runner is set to speak at a rally in Rapid City, South Dakota. The appearance will mark one of his first since pleading not guilty to charges stemming from his unsuccessful attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia.

The event, which is being held just minutes away from Mount Rushmore, is being billed as a fundraiser for the state Republican Party and the Trump campaign is not listed as a recipient in the fundraising efforts.

"They're supporting us," said John Wiik, chairperson of the South Dakota GOP. "They're doing this out of the kindness of their hearts."

But Trump may stand to benefit from who is also set to attend the fundraiser: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a longtime supporter.

A loyal ally

With Former Vice President Mike Pence challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, Noem, South Dakota's first female governor, could be considered for Trump's list of potential running mates.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting in the White House on Dec. 16, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting in the White House on Dec. 16, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Her national profile rose following her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. She never ordered businesses in the state to shut down, according to a spokesperson, speaking around the time of Trump's visit three years ago.

Noem has remained loyal to Trump over the years. While in Congress, she played an important role in pushing for changes to the estate tax in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, one of Trump's signature pieces of legislation during his term in office.

While Noem has been asked if she would enter the 2024 presidential race, she has yet to announce her intentions, saying she's focused on South Dakota.

When asked recently if she would endorse neighboring Republican governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who is running for president, Noem declined to answer.

"President Trump is in the race and right now I don't see a path for victory with anybody else with him in the race and the situation as it sits, today," Noem said during a radio appearance with local broadcaster, KWAT, in June. "I think people should saddle up. It can be a roller coaster of a presidential race."

This is the third time Trump has come to South Dakota in support of Noem. He appeared in Sioux Falls ahead of her first election for governor.

Sen. John Thune, who is next in line in Senate GOP leadership behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Mike Rounds will not attend the event. Those two are backing South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott for the nomination.

A monumental, but mainly symbolic, campaign stop

Presidential primaries are generally wrapped up by the time South Dakota voters weigh in on primary elections — rendering the state's three delegates mostly useless. So Trump's reasons for visiting the state likely have little to do with securing votes, especially in a place that usually supports Republicans.

Some say the presidential candidate is hoping to recapture the symbolism of his last visit.

When Trump attended the fireworks show at Mount Rushmore in 2020, it was the first time the event had been held in a decade. Many, including Native Americans, voiced their opposition to the fireworks display out of concerns that it could lead to wildfires. His visit also coincided with calls to remove the faces of the presidents sculpted on the national memorial as protesters across the country brought down Confederate statues and other historical figures with ties to slavery and colonialism. But, according to Noem, Trump dreamed of one day having his own face carved into the granite.

For Trump's supporters, his defiance was a winning strategy.

"It was very successful when he did his Mount Rushmore visit in 2020," said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeeen, South Dakota. "I suspect he's trying to recapture some of that lightning."

For others, like party chairperson Wiik, the answer is simple: Trump goes where he is supported "to keep that momentum going."

"Campaigns are long, grueling events, Wiik said. "If you can have an easy stop somewhere, take it."

Copyright 2023 South Dakota Public Broadcasting

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.