Donald Trump has told advisers and associates in recent days that he is prepared to escalate attacks against the Manhattan prosecutor who resurrected the criminal prosecution into his hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016 now that a grand jury has indicted him.
The former president has vowed to people close to him that he wants to go on the offensive and – in a private moment over the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that demonstrates his gathering resolve – remarked using more colorful language that it was time to politically “rough ’em up”.
Trump had already signaled that he would go after the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, weeks before the grand jury handed up an indictment against him on Thursday, saying in pugilistic posts on Truth Social that the prosecution was purely political and accusing Bragg of being a psychopath.
But the latest charged language reflects Trump’s determination to double down on those attacks as he returns to his time-tested playbook of brawling with prosecutors, especially when faced with legal trouble that he knows he cannot avoid, people close to him said.
The episode at Mar-a-Lago came on the sidelines of strategy meetings Trump had with advisers and associates about how to respond to the indictment from a legal and political standpoint, sessions which were described by two sources close to the former president.
The case centers on $130,000 that Trump paid to Daniels through his former lawyer Michael Cohen in the final days of the 2016 campaign. Trump later reimbursed Cohen with $35,000 checks, which were recorded as legal expenses. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal tax evasion and campaign-finance violation charges.
With the indictment under seal until Trump’s scheduled arraignment on Tuesday, the exact charges remained unclear on Sunday, though they are expected to include the falsification of business records and additional charges that elevate what would otherwise be a misdemeanor to a felony.
Trump was initially caught off-guard by the indictment and spent the following 24 hours absorbing the news that was relayed to him by several of his top advisers. Later, at one point, Trump repeated to himself almost incredulously that prosecutors had actually charged him.
The shock had dissipated by the weekend, when Trump’s tone changed and he told his team that he wanted to attack the case and fight the prosecutors. He steadfastly contends he did nothing illegal and won’t accept a plea deal that would force him to admit culpability.
The ex-president’s pugnacious tone has only accelerated in recent days with a series of critical posts about New York state supreme court justice Juan Merchan, to whom the case has apparently been allotted after he presided over a separate matter involving the Trump Organization last year.
On his Truth Social platform, Trump said Merchan had “railroaded” Allen Weisselberg, the former chief executive of the Trump Organization, who on Sunday was in the middle of serving a 100-day sentence in the Rikers Island jail complex after pleading guilty to tax fraud charges in that case.
Referencing Merchan, Trump said: “The Judge ‘assigned’ to my Witch Hunt Case, a ‘Case’ that has NEVER BEEN CHARGED BEFORE, HATES ME”.
Trump has also since pivoted his focus to seeing how he can benefit politically from the indictment, the sources said, and he was encouraged that it had boosted his poll numbers over potential rivals for the Republican nomination who found themselves forced to come to his defense against Bragg, a Democrat.
With a grim fixation on having a mug shot taken, Trump has asked whether his team could print it on T-shirts that could serve as a rallying motif for his supporters – an idea that his advisers have been particularly enthusiastic about.
Trump also spent the weekend reviewing a Yahoo news poll that showed him leading Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whom he considers his closest rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, 57% to 31% in a hypothetical one-on-one contest. The poll also found Trump was attracting the majority of support, at 52%, when pitted against a wider, 10-candidate field.
The polling illustrated the perilous dance for DeSantis and Trump’s other challengers, who have so far struggled to find a way to defend the ex-president strongly enough to ensure the support of his core base in the Republican party without undercutting their pitch as being worthy successors to him.
Trump’s advisers observed over the weekend that DeSantis had struggled in that test when his only response to the indictment was to snap back in line behind the former president, calling the case “the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda”.
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