Trump returning to the stage as he flirts with 2024 presidential run

Former president Donald Trump sharply attacked US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, demanded reparations from China and derided Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a speech in North Carolina.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Banished from social networks but no less influential among the Republican faithful, Mr Donald Trump was set to return to the stage Saturday (June 5) for his first speech in months as he flirts ever more openly with a new presidential run in 2024.

"I understand the place will be packed, all records broken," the former president, his flair for showmanship undiminished, said in announcing the planned speech in Greenville, North Carolina to a convention of that southeastern state's Republican Party.

Organisers said all 1,250 tickets to the evening event had sold out.

That number is far smaller than the thousands Mr Trump regularly drew to his campaign rallies around the country, but his followers' expectations are high for his first major public speech since February.

While Mr Trump has made no official announcement, the 74-year-old billionaire has openly floated the idea of a new run in November 2024, and his every word is being scrutinised.

Still highly popular among Republican voters, Mr Trump has been cut off from social networks, but he has hardly been silenced.

Relishing the role of king-maker, Mr Trump has issued near-daily statements to support chosen Republican candidates - or to launch his vitriolic attacks on perceived enemies.

Only a handful of Republicans have dared break with him, despite the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by supporters mobilised by his baseless allegations of fraud in last November's presidential election.

Many Republicans still see him as a valuable asset ahead of the mid-term elections in November 2022, when the party hopes to wrest back control of Congress from the Democrats. His enduring influence is extraordinary, considering that he was defeated after a single term - and was twice impeached.

Yet, in the coming months, Mr Trump is expected to again hold the big election rallies that he thrives on.

The 'next time'

For many Republicans, the party's focus in the mid-term campaigns should be a sharp critique of the policies of Mr Trump's successor, President Joe Biden.

But Mr Trump seems unable to let go of his theory - debunked by scores of judges and state officials - that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He seems certain to return to the subject Saturday evening.

Mr Trump is also expected to criticise White House pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci, accused by some Republicans of misleading the American public about Covid-19, according to the New York Times.

The Biden administration, of course, is sure to take a beating as well.

Still no concession

Nearly five months after leaving the presidency, and now comfortably installed at his Bedminster golf resort near New York, Mr Trump has yet to explicitly acknowledge his defeat - and even talks more and more openly of a return to the White House.

Ever the provocateur, the former president said on Friday that the "next time" he is in the presidential mansion, he will not be inviting chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to dinner, after Facebook announced a two-year extension of its Trump ban.

Facebook said Mr Trump could return only after it determines that any "risk to public safety" has disappeared. The popular platform had temporarily banned him on January 7, for having encouraged the deadly attack on the Capitol.

The former president, also banned by Twitter, called Facebook's unprecedented decision an "insult" to the 75 million people who voted for him in November.

Mr Biden received more than 80 million votes.

Accused in the House of Representatives' letters of impeachment of "inciting violence against the government" in the Capitol assault, Mr Trump was acquitted in February by the Senate as only seven Republicans voted to convict.