For most people, getting indicted is a setback. From Donald Trump’s team, it’s viewed as an opportunity.
Aides to the former president moved aggressively on Thursday to capitalize politically on news that a Manhattan grand jury had charged Trump — using it to fill their fundraising coffers, mobilize loyalists and further solidify his hold on his base of supporters in the GOP presidential primary.
A man with no shortage of love for made-for-TV drama, Trump himself anticipates that the media attention around the grand jury’s decision may help him win sympathy and support. His team is preparing for a circus. One Trump adviser compared the expected press frenzy of Trump going to Manhattan for the arraignment to “O.J. Simpson on steroids,” with television networks potentially launching helicopter coverage to dramatically follow Trump from his Florida estate to his plane at Palm Beach International Airport, and then from LaGuardia Airport to lower Manhattan.
Trump’s campaign had spent weeks laying the groundwork for this moment. And those plans kicked into gear when news finally emerged that he was facing charges related to allegations that he made a hush-money payment to a porn actress during the waning days of the 2016 election.
The Trump campaign’s pushback was swift. Just minutes after news broke that he was being indicted, the campaign sent out a statement from Trump calling the charges “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history.”
It was followed by a fundraising appeal and then a deluge of statements from supporters rushing to Trump’s defense. There will be more, advisers say: Trump’s team has convened a small army of lawyers and surrogates, who are set to pepper the airwaves in the coming days with campaign-approved talking points. The campaign is also expected to appeal for small-dollar contributions on Facebook.
Operatives close to the campaign noted that it came just ahead of Friday’s end–of-first-quarter fundraising deadline, allowing Trump to increase his totals that would be revealed in a report to be filed next month.
The effort underscores how Trump’s team believes it can turn the indictment into a campaign positive, at least in the short term. The president has found himself in legal jeopardy before — though an indictment against a former president is unprecedented — and there is a conviction based on that history that it will bolster him politically.
Trump was in Florida at his Mar-a-lago resort when the news of the indictment came down. Both he and his advisers were blindsided by it, people close to the former president say.
But while the news was sudden, their preparations for it weren’t. Over the past two weeks, Trump and his campaign have been keeping tabs on which Republicans were dismissing the case and boosting the ex-president. After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared to mock Trump during a press conference last week for finding himself in a scandal with a porn actress, Trump lashed out, insinuating DeSantis would soon experience false accusations of his own. Unsatisfied with that Truth Social post, Trump deleted it and replaced it with another that went even further, not only suggesting without evidence DeSantis could be faced with allegations from not only a woman but a man, too, and that it could also come from someone “underage.”
The message was deliberate and unambiguous: Defend me or else. When the time came on Thursday, Trump’s fellow Republicans did just that. DeSantis, seen as the leading 2024 primary opponent to Trump, called the indictment “un-American,” and said he would not assist with any extradition request (Trump’s lawyers have said he will turn himself in). RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel called the news “a blatant abuse of power from a DA focused on political vengeance instead of keeping people safe.” And in a pre-recorded video message, GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called the indictment “wrong” and said the country was “skating on thin ice.”
While many Republicans believe the indictment could boost Trump’s prospects by further solidifying his already-loyal base of supporters, they are also sanguine about the long-term damage it might cause. The case being brought against Trump is historic (no ex-president has ever been indicted). And future charges stemming from his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and his possession of classified documents loom and could harm him even more in a general election, should he end up the nominee.
Former Vice President Mike Pence — who is debating his own 2024 challenge of Trump — called the indictment an “outrage” during a pre-scheduled interview with CNN. But he would not say whether he thinks Trump should drop out of the race if he is convicted.
“It’s a long way to that decision,” Pence said. “So I don’t want to talk about hypotheticals in all of this.”
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