NEW YORK (AP) — When Donald Trump stepped into a Manhattan courthouse Tuesday afternoon, his usual bravado was replaced with palpable anger and notable silence as the former president was reduced to a criminal defendant in custody.
By the time he returned to his Mar-a-Lago club hours later, he was ready to unleash.
“The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it,” the first former president to be indicted told a crowd of hundreds of loyal supporters.
Trump made an unlikely transformation from reality television star to U.S. president by tapping into the grievance of Republican voters disillusioned with the political establishment. As he wages a comeback bid for the White House, Trump and his campaign hope his indictment will serve as a rallying cry that will galvanize the same voters. Already, he has raised millions of dollars off the news.
It’s an approach that will test Trump’s “all publicity is good publicity” adage 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 on trial for charges stemming from hush money payments to women during his 2016 campaign. He remains under investigation in Georgia and Washington, raising the prospect of multiple trials in several jurisdictions, all unfolding as Republicans begin voting on their next nominee.
In the meantime, 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 a general election.
“A lot of times you have a candidate who’s in trouble, you create a diversion,” said Trump campaign pollster John McLaughlin. “They’re indicting Trump, Trump consumes all the headlines and media coverage.”
While most defendants would see an arrest as an indignity to be handled quietly, Trump — a man who has always craved the media spotlight — seized the PR and fundraising opportunity, blasting out his itinerary and narrating a play-by-play on social media.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!” he wrote on Truth Social as his motorcade headed toward the courthouse, his every movement captured by news helicopters hovering overhead.
His campaign further hyped the appearance in fundraising solicitations. “My last email before my arrest,” one read.
As he was behind closed doors at the courthouse being booked and fingerprinted, his campaign began advertising a “NEW ITEM” to donors: A t-shirt featuring a doctored black-and-white “mug shot” of Trump, complete with an exaggerated height chart and the words, “NOT GUILTY.”
In reality, Trump was not subjected to a mug shot Tuesday — one of several exceptions from normal operating procedure made for the former president — underscoring the contrast between the image he hoped to project and his actual appearance as he faced 34 felony 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 Tuesday afternoon and arrived at the lower Manhattan courthouse. He was stone-faced and silent as he entered the courtroom alone, pushing the door open himself.
“What do you expect his reaction was?” Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche said outside the courthouse immediately following the appearance. “He’s frustrated, he’s upset. But I’ll tell you what: He’s motivated. And it’s not going to stop him. It’s not going to slow him down.”
During the hearing, Trump was subdued. He spent the proceeding mostly listening and spoke just 10 words in total, including “Not guilty,” “Yes,” “Thank you,” and “I do.” At one point, after a discussion about whether one of his lawyers might have a conflict of interest, Trump was told by the judge he had the right to conflict-free representation and was asked if he understood. Trump’s response was so faint that the judge gestured to his ear, signaling he hadn’t heard the answer. “Yes,” Trump then offered.
Before the proceeding, Trump declined to speak to assembled reporters, as had been expected.
“He is angry,” Barbara Res, a longtime former employee who was a vice president at the Trump Organization, said of the former president after watching the proceedings. “He has a look on his face and I’ve seen that look. That look is, ’I’m going to kill you.'”
Trump, according to people who had spoken to him in recent days, had seemed both resigned and angry as he processed the reality of the pending charges, which remained under seal until the hearing.
“He is angry. He is frustrated, but he is dedicated to defeating this,” said U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who appeared at a pro-Trump rally in New York across the street from the courthouse and joined the former president at Mar-a-Lago Tuesday night.
On Tuesday at the courthouse, he was described as resolute and calm — mad about the circumstances, but also pleased by his respectful treatment by court officers, U.S. Secret Service and staff from the District Attorney’s office.
“The GREAT PATRIOTS inside and outside of the Courthouse on Tuesday were unbelievably nice, in fact, they couldn’t have been nicer,” Trump said in a statement. “Court attendants, Police Officers, and others were all very professional, and represented New York City sooo well. Thank you to all!”
Trump, after the hearing, flew straight back home to Florida, where he delivered a grievance-filled primetime speech, again criticizing the prosecution and judge presiding over the case despite being admonished hours earlier about incendiary rhetoric.
Aides had assembled a crowd of hundreds of his most loyal supporters. The scene, in some ways, felt more like a campaign launch than the subdued announcement he held in the same room in November, with an amped-up 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 the day had been a “great” one during an “emergency” prayer call after he left the courthouse.
“We’re winning. We had a great day today, actually, because it turned out to be a sham,” he said, according to audio.
Trump is due back in court in December for a hearing, though lawyers have asked that he be excused from attending because of the extraordinary security involved. Prosecutors asked the judge to set a trial for January — just weeks before the first votes will be cast in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump’s lawyers said they felt a more realistic start date would be the spring — a time when Trump could theoretically have locked down the Republican nomination, or be in the midst of a bitter primary fight.
It remains unclear how the charges will reverberate long term, especially if Trump faces additional indictments in Georgia and Washington, where prosecutors are investigating his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents. Trump has already alienated many swing voters, particularly suburban women, who abandoned him 2020.
A CNN poll conducted after news of the indictment became public, but before it was unsealed, found that, while 60% of U.S. adults approve of the decision to bring charges, a majority — about three quarters — believe the indictment was motivated, at least, in, part by politics.
“In the short term, I think without a doubt that it will rally more right-of-center voters around President Trump,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who competed against Trump in the 2016 GOP primary. “Who would ever have thought that an indictment would be anything but a negative?”
McLaughlin, the Trump pollster, said he has found Republican primary voters are rallying around the former president.
“It’s making angry people even angrier,” he said. “They’ve got a candidate who is now the frontrunner for president.. and he’s being indicted for something they don’t understand.”