Donald Trump: Michigan attorney general race 'one of the most important' in nation

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former President Donald Trump attempted to provide a late boost for Michigan attorney general candidate Matt DePerno with a telephone town hall event Wednesday, three days before Saturday's Michigan GOP convention.

Trump spoke for about five minutes during the call, describing the GOP attorney general contest as "one of the most important" races in the country. It's widely viewed as a test of the ex-president's political strength within the Republican Party.

About 2,500 GOP delegates will vote during a Saturday convention in Grand Rapids on whether to endorse DePerno, a Kalamazoo lawyer; former state House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt, or state Rep. Ryan Berman of Commerce Township for attorney general.

Matt DePerno, Candidate for Attorney General of Michigan, left, speaks while on stage with Former President Donald J. Trump during the Save America Rally at Michigan Stars Sport Center in Washington Township, Mich. on April 2, 2022.

During Wednesday's call, Trump referenced unproven claims of fraud in Michigan's 2020 presidential election, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points.

"This choice is not just about 2022," Trump said of the attorney general race. "This is about ensuring the state of Michigan cannot be stolen from Republicans in 2024 or ever again.

"Matt will stop it. Tom will not. He has not got the capability to stop it. And he had his chance, and he refused to do it. And people were shocked."

It's unclear what Trump was referencing when he said "people were shocked" or how Leonard had the chance to "stop it."

Leonard was the speaker of the Michigan House in 2017 and 2018 before leaving office because of term limits. He ran for attorney general in 2018, losing to Democrat Dana Nessel by less than 3 percentage points. He did not hold an elected office in 2020.

In 2019, Trump nominated Leonard to be U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, but the nomination was blocked by Michigan's Democratic U.S. senators.

Trump said Leonard is a "nice person" but already had his chance to beat Nessel. The winner of the GOP convention race will face Nessel in November as she seeks a second term.

Leonard's supporters have contended he's best positioned to defeat Nessel in a rematch and can win key swing votes. But Trump said DePerno is the "conservative warrior" the GOP needs to nominate.

"If he has any enemies, it's because he's won so much," Trump said, adding DePerno is what the Republican Party needs now.

Trump endorsed DePerno in September and has made helping his campaign a focus in recent months. Before 2020, DePerno was mostly known in Michigan political circles for representing former state Rep. Todd Courser, a Lapeer Republican who resigned from the House and faced criminal charges after orchestrating a scheme to cover up an affair with former Rep. Cindy Gamrat.

Courser was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 90 hours of community service after pleading no contest in Lapeer County in 2019 to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty by a public officer.

DePerno rose to new prominence challenging results after the November 2020 presidential election in northern Michigan's Antrim County, where human errors led to incorrect initial tallies that showed Biden had won the conservative area.

The incorrect numbers were corrected before certification.

Election officials had failed to update all of the equipment in the county after the ballots' designs were changed. That led to problems with the election software because it was expecting to receive data in corresponding rows that had been altered.

Trump, who pushed to overturn the results of the 2020 election, has credited DePerno's work "on the front lines" in litigation challenging how the 2020 vote was administered.

On Wednesday night, Trump called DePerno's ongoing litigation involving Antrim County as "explosive" — although other Republicans, including the county's Republican clerk, Sheryl Guy, have pushed back on the idea.

"So the mistake had to be corrected," Trump said. "We caught them. And they said, 'Well, we made a little mistake.' It wasn't a mistake at all. It was being caught."

An investigation by the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate Oversight Committee also rejected theories about Antrim County's election.

"All compelling theories that sprang forth from the rumors surrounding Antrim County are diminished so significantly as for it to be a complete waste of time to consider them further," the 2021 report said.

The former president hosted a fundraiser for DePerno at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on March 8 and participated in a rally in Macomb County on April 2.

During the call with Trump, DePerno predicted a "resounding victory" at Saturday's convention. 

cmauger@detroitnews.com