Donald J. Trump will make his first federal criminal court appearance on Tuesday. But the former president pleaded his case for days in a much friendlier venue: the Republican court of public opinion, where he continues to dominate the 2024 field.
For Mr. Trump and his team, there was a sense of familiarity, even normalcy, in the chaos of facing a 37-count indictment in the classified documents case. After two impeachments in the House, multiple criminal investigations, the jailing of his company’s former accountant, his former fixer, and his former campaign manager, and now two felony indictments, Mr. Trump knows the drill, and the backers too of him.
The playbook is worn out – play the victim. Blame it on the « deep state ». Claim selective prosecution. Punish Republicans who walk away for disloyalty. Dominate the news. Ply small donors for cash.
His allies see the indictment as an opportunity to end the primary race before it has even begun in the minds of Republican voters, framing 2024 as an active battle with President Biden. Until now, the main pro-Trump super PAC, MAGA Inc., has focused heavily on Trump’s main Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with his $20 million in ad spending. But that message has changed since the indictment, with a new spot already shown which pits Mr. Trump squarely against Mr. Biden.
The intended effect, said a person familiar with the strategy, is to present Mr. Trump as the party leader and presumptive candidate who has already entered a head-to-head battle with Mr. Biden and his Department of Justice, making Mr. Trump Republican opponents look small by comparison.
Mr. Trump, who flew to Florida on Monday ahead of his Tuesday appearance, is determined to serve as the narrator of his own high-stakes legal drama. He posted to Truth Social to reveal he was indicted minutes after his attorney called to warn him last week.
“The only good thing about it is that it drove my poll numbers up,” Trump told the Georgia Republican Party in a combative speech on Saturday.
So far, the prosecution’s fallout seems to be moving along two parallel tracks in different directions, one political, the other judicial.
Politically, Trump has continued to consolidate Republican support. In a CBS News Poll On Sunday, just 7 percent of likely Republican primary voters initially said the charge would change their opinion of Trump for the worse, and twice as many said it would change their opinion « for the better. » A full 80 percent of likely Republican voters said Trump should be able to serve even if convicted.
Legally, the specificity and initial evidence presented in the indictment file that was opened on Friday showed the seriousness of the case.
Such evidence includes a recording of Mr. Trump claiming to have a confidential document in front of him and acknowledging that he no longer has the power to declassify it, photographs of documents strewn across the floor of a storage room – by which Mr. Trump has been particularly incensed – video of surveillance, reams of subpoenaed texts from his own assistants, and notes from his own lawyer. « If even half of it is true, then that’s toast, » Bill Barr, who served as attorney general under Trump, told Fox News. « It’s very, very harmful. »
As he headed to Miami, Mr. Trump was working to assemble a legal team shaken by two major resignations on Friday as the special counsel who filed the charges, Jack Smith, said he would push for a « expedited trial. »
For Mr Trump, who has long overshadowed public relations woes and legal danger, his 2024 campaign began in part as a shield against prosecution, and winning the polls would amount to outright acquittal. However, few political strategists in either party see the impeached run as a way to appeal to the independent voters who are key to actually winning the White House.
But Mr. Trump has rarely looked beyond the task immediately before him, and for now this is the main one. The CBS poll showed him dominating his closest rival, Mr. DeSantis, 61% to 23%.
MAGA Inc.’s super PAC CEO Taylor Budowich sent a talking point memo to surrogates Sunday night that significantly doesn’t mention Mr. DeSantis at all, only Mr. Biden.
Another person familiar with the super PAC strategy said the fundamentals of race politics have not changed even as the indictment brought Trump the gravest legal threat he has ever faced. And the PAC would eventually go on to attack Mr. DeSantis, focusing directly on his track record while also elevating other Republican candidates in hopes of wresting some of Mr. DeSantis’ support.
The awkward posture of Trump’s rivals was captured on video released from DeSantis’ super PAC, Never Back Down, attacking the « Biden DOJ » for « accusing the former president, » showing pictures of Trump. Mr. Trump’s team was delighted to see him, even though the ad cast Mr. DeSantis as the man who cleans the house within the federal government. As Trump’s team sees it, forcing rivals to rally around Trump is a reaffirmation of the former president’s place at the head of the GOP
The arc of how Mr. Trump bends the Republican Party and its constituents to his interests is not new. He famously joked that he could have shot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lost support in his 2016 campaign.
He has survived a string of scandals as president — including the lengthy investigation by a previous special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, which sent some Trump advisers to prison — that few others have survived. One reason, say his advisers and allies, is that Republican voters have grown accustomed to the various allegations he has faced, flattening them all into one example of judicial and Democratic overreach, regardless of the details.
« Most people on my side of the aisle believe that when it comes to Donald Trump, there are no rules, » said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s most ardent Republican defenders, on « This Week by ABC News on Sunday. « And you can do exactly the same thing or something similar as a democrat and nothing happens to you. »
The New York Post captured the sentiment succinctly with a tabloid banner Monday that read, « What about the Bidens? »
A Trump adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, noted that most politicians would be defensive in the face of a federal indictment. But not Mr. Trump, who made two speeches on Saturday, has posted dozens of times on his social media site and is determined to use the national spotlight to deliver a proactive message of his own. « It’s Trump 24/7, wall-to-wall — why not use it to your advantage? » the adviser said, referring to the general media coverage Trump received after his indictment.
The allegations, however, could pose a long-term political challenge. A ABC/Ipsos survey since the weekend it has found that more independents thought Mr. Trump should be charged than they thought he shouldn’t. And 61% of Americans found the allegations very or rather serious.
In the CBS poll69% of independent voters said they would consider Trump’s possession of documents on nuclear systems or military plans a national security risk (46% of Republicans said the same, suggesting a potential rift in the party on that point ).
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump will fly to New Jersey following his hearing, again commandeering cameras to deliver primetime remarks that his team hopes will be televised.
Trump’s advisers noted that some cable and television networks broadcast live on Monday the departure of his motorcade from his club in Bedminster, NJ, as it made its way to the airport for the trip to Miami. On Twitter, Trump adviser Jason Miller noted that even Fox News, which generally avoided extensive live coverage of Trump, aired footage of the cars en route to the airport. Mr. Miller had teased Fox News over the weekend for not broadcasting Mr. Trump’s appearances live.
Operation Trump said it raised $4 million in the first 24 hours after his earlier indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney in March. But this time, the campaign has not yet revealed the sum.
In a major fundraiser that was underway before the indictment, Mr. Trump is rounding up top donors Tuesday night in Bedminster. Those who raise at least $100,000 are invited to attend a « candlelight dinner » following his speech to the media.
News of the indictment overshadowed other developments during the election campaign. DeSantis’ announcement over the weekend of his first endorsement by another governor, Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, was hardly a coup. And when Trump turns himself in a Miami court on Tuesday, he will keep his focus on the former president.
About 15 different groups are trying to get Trump supporters to come to the Miami courthouse for his hearing, according to a person familiar with the plans. And a rival is seeking at least some of the spotlight. Vivek Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who is positioning himself as a pro-Trump alternative in 2024, scheduled a press conference in Miami after already promising to pardon Trump if elected president.
The juxtaposition in Mr. Trump’s language of what’s at stake, legally and politically, can be jarring.
“This is the final battle,” Trump said on Saturday.
But aware of the violence that erupted on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump urged supporters to march on Capitol Hill, he was more cautious on Sunday when he spoke to Roger J. Stone Jr., his longest-serving adviser, in an interview for the program Mr. Stone’s radio show.
Mr Trump said they should join that final battle as they protested « peacefully ».