World

For Now, Trump and Allies Focus on Political Upside of a Criminal Case

Supporters of former President Donald Trump listen as he speaks at Mar-a-Lago, his residence and private club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Supporters of former President Donald Trump listen as he speaks at Mar-a-Lago, his residence and private club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Just hours after he became the first former president in American history to be indicted, Donald Trump sat on the patio of his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, Tuesday night and played disc jockey.

Sitting with a group that included his daughter Tiffany and her husband, as well as his longest-serving adviser, Roger Stone, Trump used an iPad to choose the music blaring over speakers: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown — one of Trump’s favorite performers — “Macho Man” by the Village People and the national anthem sung by a choir of inmates arrested after storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

When the anthem played, people rose to their feet, put their hands over their hearts and sang along, according to two attendees. In the song, Trump’s own voice periodically cut into the soundtrack to chant the Pledge of Allegiance, a recording experience he has boasted about as the song topped Billboard’s digital song chart.

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Trump’s campaign said that by Wednesday afternoon it had raised more than $12 million in online donations since news of his indictment broke last Thursday, according to a person briefed on the numbers, which won’t be available to be checked in filings for weeks. Roughly a third of those donors had never given to Trump before, two other people briefed on the data said, a statistic that suggested he might be able to gain new Republican supporters in the 2024 presidential primary race.

In the long term, an indictment is not something any candidate seeks, a fact that some of Trump’s close associates acknowledge privately. Its impact on the months ahead remains unclear, particularly if Trump is also indicted in other investigations, which are being conducted in Georgia and by the Justice Department.

Some of Trump’s close associates concede that in a general election indictments are unlikely to draw more moderate suburban and independent voters who have been wary of the former president for several election cycles. And all of that is outside of the substantial legal peril Trump now faces.

Several people in his orbit have privately acknowledged that, absent a recession, it is hard to visualize the circumstances that would lead an independent voter who supported Joe Biden in 2020 because they were fed up with chaos to turn around — four years and potentially multiple indictments later — and look at Trump and figure he’s worth another shot.

But Trump and some of his allies and advisers view politics through a narrow, and short, lens, and for the moment, they are looking for the upside of an undesirable situation. For now, they are treating the indictment brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, as a political gift, and one that contained nothing that surprised them.

Trump’s adviser Jason Miller said prosecutors had “awakened a sleeping giant” with what he said was a “weaponized” justice system. “It served as a reminder to Americans from all walks of life, including those who don’t normally follow politics, that this is a fight to save our country, and if we want to save our country, we need to rally around our strongest fighter,” he said.

The day of the arrest had been “exhausting” but “energizing,” aides said. Before Trump began playing music Tuesday night, he said to several people, “Don’t you know I’m tired.” He then went on to deliver roughly 20 minutes of remarks lighting into the Manhattan district attorney, the judge overseeing the case, investigators in Georgia and the special counsel, Jack Smith, who he seemed to suggest goes by a fake name, a claim he has made privately as well.

Besides the money pouring in to bolster what had been a slow start to his 2024 campaign’s fundraising, influential voices on the right who had been gravitating away from Trump, or outright criticizing him, have become more muted or said they are now supporting him.

Trump’s advisers have gleefully noted that it has become politically painful for a Republican to attack Trump after the indictment. Doing so now, they say, makes those Republican critics co-conspirators with Democrats who Trump says are bent on destroying him. Some of his allies have painted him in starkly martyr-like terms, comparing him to Jesus Christ.

“We the American people need to stand behind this guy,” said Mark Levin, the influential conservative television and radio host, hours after Trump’s arraignment in Lower Manhattan. “There’s not another Republican I can think of that can fight back, and fight back this way.”

The New York Post, which, like other properties owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, has been campaigning aggressively against the former president and playing up Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, on Wednesday gave Trump his best coverage in its pages in a long while, splashing his face on the front page with the big block headline declaring Bragg’s charges “Trumped Up.”

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, one of Trump’s most vocal critics within the party who voted to convict the former president in his two impeachment trials, said after the arraignment that he took issue with the case.

“I believe President Trump’s character and conduct make him unfit for office. Even so, I believe the New York prosecutor has stretched to reach felony criminal charges in order to fit a political agenda,” Romney said. “No one is above the law, not even former presidents, but everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law.”

Even a string of frequent critics of Trump, including on the left, have raised questions about the strength of Bragg’s case, which rests on a novel legal theory aimed at proving Trump falsified business records with an intent to defraud while he was a presidential candidate in 2016 with regard to hush money payments to a porn star made by Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen.

The statement of fact accompanying the indictment, however, offers less-than-flattering details for Trump. It lays out Trump’s reimbursing Cohen while he was president and speaking with him in the Oval Office about it. It also describes Trump’s hosting David Pecker — the former chief executive of the parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer, which is said to have killed articles detailing questionable personal conduct by Trump — at a White House meeting to thank him for his help during the campaign.

Trump’s support in public opinion polls has jumped among Republicans, showing his perceived limits in gaining back those voters is higher than some of his opponents had believed. Some of DeSantis’ allies have been surprised at the extent of the bump Trump has garnered.

In the lead-up to Trump’s arraignment, he and his team devoured media coverage around his impending arrest, trading screen grabs of the news. Trump monitored cable news while his aides took note of how much the coverage was blotting out almost everything else.

Trump, after what was described as some snappishness before he walked into the courtroom in Manhattan for his arraignment, described the experience as relatively pleasant in a statement Wednesday.

“The GREAT PATRIOTS inside and outside of the Courthouse on Tuesday were unbelievably nice, in fact, they couldn’t have been nicer. Court attendants, Police Officers, and others were all very professional, and represented New York City sooo well,” he wrote. “Thank you to all!”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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