Former president Donald Trump and some of his legal advisers see an upside to the latest criminal case against him: He can use his upcoming trial to further argue his false claims of a stolen 2020 election.
The looming courtroom showdown is poised to push his insistence that election fraud occurred in 2020 toward the center of the 2024 presidential campaign, a dismaying prospect for Republicans and some of Trump’s advisers who have urged him to stop belaboring that subject. Trump’s defense team has signaled that they’ll focus on rebutting prosecutors’ allegations that Trump knew his fraud claims were false.
The strategy offers a small consolation to the former president, who spent Thursday suffering once again from the small indignities faced by indicted federal defendants. He was arraigned after roughly an hour-long wait inside a Washington courthouse just blocks from the site of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Trump spent the time occasionally rapping his knuckles on a table.
Trump has said that he wanted to subpoena people about the 2020 election and argue that he won, as prosecutors allege that he knew he lost and that his claims were false, according to people close to the former president, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
But the prospect of revisiting the validity of the last election has delighted Democrats, on top of causing consternation among Republican strategists, who see other, much more politically fruitful focal points for 2024. There are mountains of evidence — provided by top leaders in his campaign and government — that the election was not stolen from Trump, and the indictment paints a damning portrait of a man who was frequently informed of that reality.
By the time Trump left Washington on Thursday, after pleading not guilty, rain had started, and he left his car and was handed an umbrella by body man and co-defendant Waltine “Walt” Nauta, who then stood unprotected from the weather. Trump did not give a long, defiant speech as he did after the previous indictment, and he ignored shouted questions from reporters gathered on the tarmac.
“This is not the place that I left,” he said.
He staged no nighttime rallies after Thursday’s court appearance, breaking from a tradition he began with defiant speeches after his recent arraignments in New York and Miami on charges related to hush money payments and the mishandling of classified documents.
Trump’s campaign team was miffed by a lack of traffic support from local police after he arrived in Washington, forcing the motorcade to weave through rush-hour traffic. Other motorists attempted to change lanes between the motorcade, showing less deference than typical for an average funeral procession. The welcome from onlookers at the courthouse was occasionally hostile, with several middle fingers from bikers and spectators along the highway from the airport. There was a Biden flag on a corner near the courthouse.
The former president said it was a “very sad day for America.” His lawyers have vowed to aggressively fight the charges that he engaged in criminal schemes in an attempt to overturn the election results.
“We will re-litigate every single issue in the 2020 election in the context of this litigation,” Trump attorney John Lauro said Tuesday during an interview with Fox News. “It gives President Trump an opportunity that he has never had before, which is to have subpoena power since Jan. 6 in a way that can be exercised in federal court.”
Leaders in both parties agree that revisiting those topics hurt the GOP among moderates and swing voters in last year’s midterms and could continue to sandbag Trump and the rest of the ticket.
“To the extent that it forces him to talk about the past rather than the future, it is not helpful to his campaign,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
Michael Duncan, a Republican digital consultant aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in a Thursday episode of his “Ruthless” podcast that a focus on election denial in the midterms lost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. “If this is the conversation we’re going to have over the next year and a half, it’s going to be tough for Republicans, particularly in suburban areas,” he said.
Democrats, who are preparing to run an incumbent president with low approval ratings, are even more blunt.
“Swing voters in a general election are not looking for celebration of an attempt to overturn an election and overthrow a government,” said Geoff Garin, a prominent Democratic pollster who has worked on the past three presidential races. “Swing voters and voters generally take our democracy very seriously and don’t want their votes to be made irrelevant by politicians that want to overturn elections.”
After the midterms, advisers succeeded in steering Trump away from talking about the “stolen” election, instead channeling that energy into a more forward-looking message casting the prosecutions as the latest step in a continuous conspiracy of “election interference” against him. As the charges piled up, however, Trump has resumed peppering his speeches with repeated false claims about the 2020 election and Jan. 6.
But that strategy has changed somewhat since then. Another Trump attorney, Alina Habba, said Thursday outside the courtroom that Trump’s defense team would show at trial that the former president believed that there were problems with the 2020 results, though his attorneys will not have to prove that the election result was fraudulent.
“The truth is, as an American, there were questions that he had regarding the election integrity,” she said. “We’ve seen documents come out, we’ve seen documentaries come out showing that there were issues with the election. When somebody wants to say that the 2020 election was perfect and that President Trump has no right to object to it, we’ve got to go show him all the facts, and there’s a lot of facts to show.”
Before boarding his plane to Washington, Trump returned to his debunked argument, which has already been litigated in dozens of cases around the country. He embraced a political tactic he has long used, arguing that he was being persecuted by the same political forces that unfairly denied him a second term. One person who spoke to Trump in recent days described him as privately frustrated by the indictment and his mounting legal challenges.
“I AM NOW GOING TO WASHINGTON, D.C., TO BE ARRESTED FOR HAVING CHALLENGED A CORRUPT, RIGGED, & STOLEN ELECTION,” Trump wrote on his preferred social media app on Thursday before departing New Jersey. “IT IS A GREAT HONOR, BECAUSE I AM BEING ARRESTED FOR YOU.”
He has even argued that the state and federal prosecutions, which could soon include more charges from a Georgia prosecutor over his efforts to influence the ballot count in that state, will ultimately power his campaign to victory. “I NEED ONE MORE INDICTMENT TO ENSURE MY ELECTION!” he wrote.
Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination acknowledge that he has received a short-term political boost from the prosecutions. But they have begun to more forcefully argue that the immediate gains will translate to weakness in the general election, when a different group of voters make the difference between victory and defeat.
Trump’s leading challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has largely avoided faulting Trump for the criminal jeopardy the former president is facing, joining him in criticizing the prosecution, offering to pardon Trump if elected and calling for the case to be moved to a more right-leaning jurisdiction. But even before the latest charges in the election subversion case, DeSantis acknowledged the political risks of running a campaign centered on Trump’s legal troubles.
“If the election becomes a referendum on what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago, we are not going to win,” DeSantis told ABC News last week during a campaign stop in Iowa, referring to an instantly famous photo from the earlier indictment showing boxes stored in a bathroom at Trump’s Florida resort home. “We’ve got to focus on what the people are looking for in terms of their futures, and I just think in 2024, we won’t, we can’t have distractions.”
Trump’s allies have made the opposite argument, arguing that the prosecutions prove that the former president is a greater threat to those forces that oppose the interests of Republican voters.
“Now they’re trying to throw him in jail. Their attitudes are enough is enough: If you hate him this much, this is exactly who I want to be president of the United States,” Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, said in an interview. “That’s where voters are. They don’t trust the federal government and the federal agencies, they don’t trust political hacks, and they don’t trust political corruption. If you hate him, we love him.”
Trump’s campaign, aiming to add to the spectacle Thursday, allowed reporters to join Trump’s motorcade from Reagan National Airport. Cable networks carried the footage of the drive live from the dashboard of a vehicle, once again blotting out coverage of his political rivals.
In a brief address to reporters before departing Washington after the hearing, Trump described the prosecution as a “persecution of a political opponent.” He also claimed that on his drive through town that he had seen filth, decay, broken buildings and walls with graffiti that he claimed were not present when he was president. Others in the motorcade did not witness urban blight that was substantially different from when Trump was president.
“We can’t let this happen in America,” Trump said.
Trump’s defiance, and continued election denial, is widely expected to continue over the coming year. Former advisers and aides point out that he has little record of behaving differently.
“He is never going to stop saying the election was stolen because that would force him to admit he is a loser,” said John F. Kelly, his former White House chief of staff.