When Donald Trump walked into a Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday afternoon, his usual bravado was replaced by palpable anger and notable silence as the former president was reduced to a defendant in custody.
By the time he returned to his Mar-a-Lago club hours later, he was ready to go wild.
“The only crime I have committed is fearlessly defending our nation against those who seek to destroy it,” the first former president to be charged told a crowd of hundreds of loyal supporters.
Trump made an unlikely transformation from reality TV star to US president by exploiting the grievance of Republican voters disillusioned with the political establishment. As he bids back for the White House, Trump and his campaign hope his indictment will serve as a rallying cry that galvanizes the same voters. He has already raised millions of dollars from the news.
It’s an approach that will test Trump’s adage “all publicity is good publicity” as his decades-long history of bending the world to his will collides with cold legal reality.
Trump, the early frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, now faces the unprecedented prospect of mounting another campaign for the White House while simultaneously being tried on charges stemming from silent money payments to women during his campaign. of 2016. He remains under investigation in Georgia and Washington, raising the possibility of multiple trials in multiple jurisdictions, all taking place as Republicans begin voting on their next nominee.
Meanwhile, Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination are struggling to emerge from his ever-growing shadow, even as the proceedings raise serious questions about Trump’s viability in the general election.
“A lot of times you have a candidate in trouble, you create a diversion,” said Trump campaign pollster John McLaughlin. “They blame Trump, Trump consumes all the headlines and media coverage.”
While most defendants would view an arrest as an indignity to be handled quietly, Trump – a man who is always hungry for the media spotlight – seized the PR and fundraising opportunity, blasting his route and telling a game per game on social networks.
“On the way to Lower Manhattan, the courthouse. It sounds so SURREAL – WOW they are going to ARREST ME. I can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!” he wrote on Truth Social as his motorcade made its way to the courthouse, his every move captured by news helicopters hovering overhead.
His campaign further highlighted the appearance in fundraising solicitations. “My last email before my arrest,” read one.
While behind closed doors at the courthouse being booked and fingerprinted, his campaign began advertising a “NEW ITEM” to donors: a t-shirt with a “ Trump’s doctored black-and-white mug shot, with an oversized chalkboard and the words “NOT GUILTY”.
In reality, Trump was not subjected to a photo ID on Tuesday – one of several exceptions to normal operating procedure made for the former president – underscoring the contrast between the image he was hoping for project and his actual appearance facing 34 counts of falsifying business records. in the first degree.
After being caught off guard by the charges, Trump appeared unmistakably livid as he left Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon and arrived at the lower Manhattan courthouse. He was impassive and silent as he entered the courtroom alone, pushing open the door himself.
“What do you expect from his reaction?” Trump’s attorney, Todd Blanche, said outside the courthouse immediately after the appearance. “He’s frustrated, he’s upset. But I’ll tell you what: he’s motivated. And that’s not going to stop him. It’s not going to slow him down. »
During the hearing, Trump was overpowered. He spent the proceedings mostly listening and said only 10 words in total, including “Not Guilty”, “Yes”, “Thank you” and “Yes”. At one point, after a discussion about whether one of his attorneys might have a conflict of interest, the judge told Trump he had a right to be represented without a conflict and was told asked if he understood. Trump’s response was so weak that the judge gestured to his ear, signaling that he hadn’t heard the response. “Yes,” Trump offered then.
Prior to the proceedings, Trump declined to speak to the assembled reporters, as scheduled.
“He’s angry,” Barbara Res, a former longtime employee who served as vice president of the Trump Organization, said of the former president after watching the proceedings. “He has a look on his face and I saw that look. That look is, ‘I’m going to kill you.'”
Trump, according to people who had spoken to him in recent days, had appeared both resigned and angry as he dealt with the reality of the pending charges, which remained sealed until the hearing. At the courthouse on Tuesday, he was described as resolute and calm – mad about the circumstances, but also pleased with his respectful treatment by court officers, US Secret Service and District Attorney’s Office staff.
“He’s angry. He’s frustrated, but he’s determined to overcome this,” said US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia who appeared at a pro-Trump rally in New York across from the palace. of justice and joined the former president in Mar-a.-Lago on Tuesday evening.
Trump, after the hearing, drove straight home to Florida, where he delivered a grievance-filled speech in prime time, again criticizing the prosecution and the judge presiding over the case, despite being reprimanded hours earlier for inflammatory rhetoric.
Aides had amassed a crowd of hundreds of his most loyal supporters, including failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and “MyPillow” founder and election conspirator Mike Lindell. The scene, in some ways, was more like a campaign launch than the low-key announcement he made in the same room in November, with an amplified crowd cheering him on. After his speech, he joined supporters at a reception on the Mar-a-Lago patio, where he mingled late into the night.
Indeed, Trump went so far as to insist it had been a “great” day during an “emergency” prayer call after leaving the courthouse.
“We are winning. We had a great day today, actually, because it turned out to be a sham,” he said, according to audio posted online.
Trump is due back in court in December for a hearing, although attorneys have asked that he be excused from attending due to the extraordinary security involved. Prosecutors have asked the judge to set a trial for January – just weeks before the first votes are cast in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump’s lawyers have said they believe an earlier start date realistic would be the spring – a time when Trump could theoretically have locked in the Republican nomination or been in the middle of a bitter primary fight.
It remains unclear how the charges will reverberate in the long term, especially if Trump faces additional indictments in Georgia and Washington, where prosecutors are investigating his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and his handling. classified documents. Trump has already alienated many swing voters, especially suburban women, who abandoned him in 2020.
A CNN poll conducted after news of the indictment became public, but before it was made public, found that while 60% of American adults approve of the decision to press charges, a majority of Americans — about three-quarters — believe the indictment was motivated, at least, in part, by politics.
“In the short term, I definitely think this will rally more center-right voters around President Trump,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who faced Trump in the GOP primary in 2016. “Who would have ever thought that an indictment would be anything other than a negative?”
McLaughlin, Trump’s pollster, said he found already angry Republican primary voters rallying around the former president.
“It makes angry people even angrier,” he said. “They have a candidate who is now the front-runner for president…and he’s being charged for something they don’t understand.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Michael R. Sisak and Jennifer Peltz in New York, and Adriana Gomez Licon in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.