Donald J. Trump will appear in federal criminal court for the first time on Tuesday. But the former president has been pleading his case for days in a much friendlier venue: the court of Republican public opinion, where he continues to dominate the 2024 field.
For Mr. Trump and his team, there was a sense of familiarity, even normal, in the chaos of a 37-point indictment in the classified documents case. After two House impeachments, multiple criminal investigations, the capture of his company’s former accountant, his former fixer and his former campaign manager, and now two criminal charges, Mr. Trump knows how to do it, and so do his supporters.
The playbook is widely used: play the victim. Blame the “Deep State”. Claim selective prosecution. Punish Republicans who go astray for disloyalty. Dominate the news. Ply small donors for cash.
His allies see the indictment as an opportunity to end the primary before it even begins in the minds of Republican voters by viewing 2024 as an active battle against President Biden. So far, the main pro-Trump super-PAC, MAGA Inc., has focused its $20 million in ad spending on Mr. Trump’s main Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But that coverage has changed after the indictment, with a new commercial already showing that pits Mr. Trump directly against Mr. Biden.
The intended effect, said a person familiar with the strategy, is to present Mr Trump as the leader of the party and the presumptive candidate who has already engaged in head-to-head combat with Mr Biden and his Justice Department, causing the Mr. Trump’s Republican opponents seem small by comparison.
Mr. Trump, who flew to Florida on Monday ahead of his appearance on Tuesday, is determined to serve as the narrator of his own high-stakes legal drama. He posted to Truth Social to reveal he had been charged minutes after his lawyer called him last week to warn him.
“The only good thing about it is that it drove up my polls,” Trump said in a belligerent speech to the Georgia Republican Party on Saturday.
So far, the fallout from the indictment seems to be moving along two parallel tracks in different directions, one political, the other legal.
Politically, Mr. Trump has continued to consolidate Republican support. In a CBS News poll on Sunday, only 7 percent of likely Republican primary voters initially said the indictment 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 Mr Trump should be able to serve even if convicted.
Legally, the specificity and initial evidence presented in the indictment document unsealed on Friday demonstrated the seriousness of the case.
That evidence includes a recording of Mr Trump claiming to have a classified document in front of him and acknowledging that he no longer had the power to release it, photographs of documents scattered on the floor of a storage unit – which Mr Trump is particularly troubled by. van had — surveillance footage, stacks of subpoenaed texts from his own assistants, and notes from his own lawyer. “If even half of it is true, it’s toast,” Bill Barr, who served as Trump’s attorney general, told Fox News. “It’s very, very devastating.”
While on his way to Miami, Mr. Trump worked to reassemble a legal team that was shocked Friday by two major layoffs as special counsel who filed the suit, Jack Smith, said he would push for a ” quick process”.
For Mr. Trump, who has long brushed aside public relations issues and legal jeopardy, his 2024 campaign began in part as a shield against prosecution, and victory at the polls would amount to the ultimate acquittal. Yet few political strategists in both parties see running while indicted as a way to appeal to the independent voters crucial to actually winning the White House.
But Mr. Trump has rarely looked beyond the task before him, and for now that is the most important one. The CBS poll showed he dominated his closest rival, Mr. DeSantis, by 61 percent to 23 percent.
On Sunday night, the CEO of MAGA Inc.’s super-PAC, Taylor Budowich, sent a memo of talking points to surrogates that does not mention Mr. DeSantis at all, only Mr. Biden.
Another person familiar with the super-PAC’s strategy said the fundamentals of the political race had not changed, even though the indictment has presented Mr. Trump with the most serious legal threat he has ever faced. And the PAC would eventually continue to attack Mr. DeSantis, focusing directly on his record, while also elevating other Republican candidates in hopes of shedding some of Mr. DeSantis’ support.
The awkward attitude of Mr. Trump’s rivals was captured in a video issued by the super-PAC of Mr. DeSantis, Never Back Down, who attacked the “Biden DOJ” for “indicting the former president,” depicting images of Mr. Trump were shown. Mr. Trump’s team was delighted to see it, even though the ad cast Mr. DeSantis as the man to clean the house within the federal government. As the Trump team sees it, forcing rivals to rally around Mr. Trump is a reassertion of the former president’s place at the head of the GOP.
The arc of how Mr. Trump bends the Republican Party and its voters to his interests is not new. He famously joked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support in his 2016 campaign.
He survived a succession of scandals as president — including the long-running investigation by a previous special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, that sent some Trump advisers to jail — that few others could. One reason, his advisers and allies say, is that Republican voters have become accustomed to the various charges he has faced, flattening them all into a single instance of prosecution and Democratic outreach, regardless of the details.
“Most people on my side of the aisle believe that when it comes to Donald Trump, there are no rules,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Mr. Trump’s most staunch Republican defenders, said on ABC News’ This Week” on Sunday. “And you can do the exact same thing or something like a Democrat and nothing will happen to you.”
The New York Post succinctly summed up the sentiment with a tabloid banner on Monday that read, “What about the Bidens?”
A Trump adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy, noted that most politicians would take a defensive crouch when faced with a federal indictment. But not Mr. Trump, who delivered two speeches on Saturday, has posted dozens of times on his social media site and is determined to use the national spotlight to spread his own proactive message. “It’s Trump 24/7, wall to wall — why not use that to your advantage?” said the adviser, referring to the general media coverage Mr. Trump has received following his indictment.
However, the allegations could pose a long-term political challenge. An ABC/Ipsos poll over the weekend found that more independents thought Trump should be indicted than that he shouldn’t. And 61 percent of Americans thought the allegations were very or somewhat serious.
In the CBS poll, 69 percent of independent voters said they would view Mr Trump’s possession of documents about nuclear systems or military plans as a risk to national security (46 percent of Republicans said the same, indicating a possible break in the party at that point).
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump will fly to New Jersey after his hearing, where he will once again run the cameras to make prime-time remarks that his team hopes will be televised.
Trump’s advisers noted that some cable and broadcast networks were reporting live on Monday about his motorcade’s departure from his club in Bedminster, NJ, en route to the airport for the trip to Miami. On Twitter, Trump adviser Jason Miller noted that even Fox News, which has generally shied away from extensive live coverage of Trump, was broadcasting footage of the cars heading to the airport. Mr. Miller had mocked Fox News over the weekend for not broadcasting Mr. Trump’s performances live.
The Trump operation said it raised $4 million in the first 24 hours after his previous indictment by Manhattan’s district attorney in March. But the campaign has yet to disclose the amount this time.
In a major fundraiser in the works before impeachment, Mr Trump gathers top donors in Bedminster on Tuesday night. Those who raise at least $100,000 will be invited to attend a “candlelight dinner” that will follow his speech to the media.
News of the indictment has erased other developments on the campaign trail. Mr. DeSantis’ announcement over the weekend of his first endorsement by a fellow governor, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, was hardly a snapshot. And when Mr. Trump turns himself in at a Miami courthouse on Tuesday, that will keep the 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 one person briefed on the plans. And one 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, has scheduled a press conference in Miami after already vowing, if elected president, to pardon Mr. Trump.
The juxtaposition in Mr. Trump’s own language about the stakes, legal and political, can be shocking.
“This is the last fight,” Trump said Saturday.
But mindful of the violence that erupted on Jan. 6, 2021, when Mr. Trump urged supporters to march on the Capitol, he was more cautious on Sunday when he spoke to Roger J. Stone Jr., his longest-serving adviser, in an interview for the Mr. Stone radio show.
Mr Trump said they should join that last battle while protesting “peacefully”.