How Trump Plans to Beat His Indictment, Politically

The former president keeps consolidating Republican support, but the legal peril is the greatest he has ever faced and adds to his challenges with independent voters.

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How Trump Plans to Beat His Indictment, Politically |

Donald Trump’s campaign strategy after his federal indictment is to present himself as the presumptive Republican nominee ready to go up against President Biden.

Donald J. Trump will make his first appearance in federal criminal court on Tuesday. But the former president has been pleading his case for days in a far friendlier venue — the court of Republican public opinion, where he continues to dominate the 2024 field.

For Mr. Trump and his team, there has been a sense of familiarity, even normalcy, in the chaos of facing a 37-count indictment in the classified documents case. After two House impeachments, multiple criminal investigations, the jailing of his business’s former accountant, his former fixer and his former campaign manager, and now two criminal indictments, Mr. Trump knows the drill, and so do his supporters.

The playbook is well-worn: Play the victim. Blame the “Deep State.” Claim selective prosecution. Punish Republicans who stray for disloyalty. Dominate the news. Ply small donors for cash.

His allies see the indictment as a chance to end the primary race before it has even begun in the minds of Republican voters by framing 2024 as an active battle with President Biden. Until now, the main pro-Trump super PAC, MAGA Inc., has focused heavily on Mr. Trump’s chief Republican rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, in its $20 million of ad spending. But that messaging has shifted after the indictment, with a new commercial already being shown 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 party’s leader and the presumptive nominee who has already entered a head-to-head battle with Mr. Biden and his Justice Department, making Mr. Trump’s Republican opponents look small by comparison.

Mr. Trump, who flew to Florida on Monday ahead of his Tuesday appearance, is determined to serve as narrator of his own high-stakes legal drama. He posted on Truth Social to reveal he had been indicted minutes after his lawyer had called to alert him last week.

“The only good thing about it is it’s driven my poll numbers way up,” Mr. Trump told the Georgia Republican Party in a combative speech on Saturday.

So far, the indictment fallout appears 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 view of Mr. Trump for the worse — and twice as many said it would change their view “for the better.” A full 80 percent of likely Republican voters said Mr. Trump should be able to serve even if convicted.

ImageMr. Trump will make his first appearance in the federal criminal court in Miami on Tuesday.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Legally, the specificity and initial evidence presented in the charging document that was unsealed on Friday showed the gravity of the case.

That evidence includes a recording of Mr. Trump claiming to have a classified document in front of him and acknowledging he no longer had the power to declassify it, photographs of documents strewn across a storage room floor — which Mr. Trump was particularly rankled by — surveillance footage, reams of subpoenaed texts from his own aides and notes from his own lawyer. “If even half of it is true, then he’s toast,” Bill Barr, who served as attorney general under Mr. Trump, said on Fox News. “It’s very, very damning.”

As he headed to Miami, Mr. Trump was working to reassemble a legal team shaken by two major resignations on Friday as the special counsel who brought the charges, Jack Smith, said he would push for a “speedy trial.”

For Mr. Trump, who has long blurred public-relations woes and legal peril, his 2024 campaign began in part as a shield against prosecution, and victory at the ballot box would amount to the ultimate acquittal. Still, few political strategists in either party see running while under indictment as a way to appeal to the independent voters who are crucial to actually winning the White House.

But Mr. Trump has rarely looked past the task immediately in front of him, and for now that is the primary. The CBS poll showed him dominating his closest rival, Mr. DeSantis, 61 percent to 23 percent.

Image“The only good thing about it is it’s driven my poll numbers way up,” Mr. Trump told the Georgia Republican Party on Saturday.Credit…Jon Cherry for The New York Times

On Sunday night, the chief executive of the MAGA Inc. super PAC, Taylor Budowich, sent a memo of talking points to surrogates that tellingly does not mention Mr. DeSantis at all, only Mr. Biden.

Another person familiar with the super PAC’s strategy said that the fundamentals of the political race had not changed even as the indictment has brought Mr. Trump the gravest legal threat he’s ever faced. And the PAC would eventually continue attacking Mr. DeSantis, directly focusing on his record while also elevating other Republican candidates in the hopes of shearing off some of Mr. DeSantis’s support.

The uncomfortable posture of Mr. Trump’s rivals was captured in a video released by Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, attacking the “Biden DOJ” for “indicting the former president,” displaying images of Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump’s team was delighted to see it, even if the ad cast Mr. DeSantis as the man to clean house inside the federal government. As the Trump team sees it, forcing rivals to rally around Mr. Trump is a reaffirmation of the former president’s place at the head of the G.O.P.

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 prison — that few others could. One reason, his advisers and allies say, is that Republican voters have become inured to the various accusations he has faced, flattening them all into a single example of prosecutorial and Democratic overreach, regardless of the specifics.

ImageJack Smith, the special counsel who charged the former president, said he would push for a “speedy trial.”Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

“Most people on my side of the aisle believe when it comes to Donald Trump, there are no rules,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Mr. Trump’s most ardent Republican defenders, said on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday. “And you can do the exact 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 on Monday that read, “What About the Bidens?”

One Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, noted that most politicians would assume a defensive crouch when facing 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 drive a proactive message of his own. “It is Trump 24/7, wall-to-wall — why not use that to your advantage?” the adviser said, referring to the blanket media coverage Mr. Trump has been receiving after his indictment.

The charges, however, could pose a long-term political challenge. An ABC/Ipsos poll from the weekend found that more independents thought Mr. Trump should be charged than thought he should not. And 61 percent of Americans found the charges either very or somewhat serious.

In the CBS poll, 69 percent of independent voters said they would consider Mr. Trump’s possession of documents about nuclear systems or military plans a national security risk (46 percent of Republicans said the same, suggesting a potential fracture in the party over that point).

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump will fly to New Jersey after his hearing, commandeering the cameras again to deliver prime-time remarks that his team hopes will be televised.

Mr. Trump’s advisers took note that some cable and broadcast networks gave live coverage on Monday to the departure of his motorcade from his club at Bedminster, N.J., as it headed for the airport for the trip to Miami. On Twitter, the Trump adviser Jason Miller noted that even Fox News, which has generally shied away from extensive live Trump coverage, broadcast footage of the cars en route to the airport. Mr. Miller had mocked Fox News over the weekend for not carrying Mr. Trump’s appearances live.

The Trump operation said it had raised $4 million in the first 24 hours after his previous indictment by the Manhattan district attorney in March. But the campaign has yet to disclose the sum this time.

ImageTrump supporters outside Mar-a-Lago on Sunday. Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

In a major fund-raiser that was in the works before the indictment, Mr. Trump is gathering top donors on Tuesday evening at Bedminster. Those who raise at least $100,000 are invited to attend a “candlelight dinner” that will follow his address to the media.

The indictment news has blotted out other developments on the campaign trail. The announcement over the weekend by Mr. DeSantis of his first endorsement from a fellow governor, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, was barely a blip. And when Mr. Trump turns himself in at a Miami courthouse on Tuesday, it will keep the attention on the former president.

Roughly 15 different groups are trying to galvanize 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 a share of the spotlight. Vivek Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who is positioning himself as a pro-Trump alternative in 2024, has scheduled a news conference in Miami after already vowing, if elected president, to pardon Mr. Trump.

The juxtaposition in Mr. Trump’s own language about the stakes, legally and politically, can be jarring.

“This is the final battle,” Mr. Trump said on Saturday.

But aware of the violence that broke out on Jan. 6, 2021, when Mr. Trump urged supporters to march on the Capitol, he was more cautious on Sunday when speaking to Roger J. Stone Jr., his longest-serving adviser, in an interview for Mr. Stone’s radio show.

Mr. Trump said they should join that final battle while protesting “peacefully.”

Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. @ShaneGoldmacher

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. @jonathanvswan

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