Donald Trump turns his legal battles into campaign spectacle

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Appearing in court in New York at the end of the civil fraud case against the Trump Organization on Thursday, Donald Trump insisted on having his say.

The judge had previously said the former president would not be able to speak in the courtroom but eventually relented and gave him a few minutes.

He used that platform to accuse the city’s attorney general of hating him before striding out of the courtroom and declaring the case a “sham” to waiting reporters.

But that wasn’t enough. A full news conference followed at a building he owns – and is accused of fraudulently valuing – at 40 Wall Street down the road.

Mr Trump is treating his court appearances as though they are campaign events, blending his legal defence with his re-election bid as a US presidential race like no other kicks into high gear.

His legal headaches across the country are, in his telling, all part of a plan by Joe Biden, the Democrats and the White House to stop him winning the 2024 election.

Thursday’s appearance in New York followed hot on the heels of another in Washington earlier in the week. The former president made a personal appearance at a federal appeals court where his lawyers argued that he could not be tried for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election.

As his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination have been criss-crossing Iowa ahead of the first voting contest on Monday, the former president has been claiming that he is being dragged off the campaign trail by the judiciary.

“TWICE in this final week, I will reportedly be forced off the campaign trail and into courtrooms for phony witch hunts in both New York and Washington DC,” he wrote in a fundraising email to supporters.

In fact, he did not have to attend either of these hearings. He deliberately chose to appear in two separate courtrooms because he believes that his campaign gets a significant boost every time he is seen in court.

And he’s right. The Republican frontrunner has successfully transformed his multiple legal problems into his greatest political asset. At rallies, news conferences and in emails and text messages to voters and donors, he claims to be the victim of politically-motivated prosecutions orchestrated to try to stop him getting back into the White House.

The indictments against him, he tells supporters, aren’t a source of shame but a “badge of honour”.He claims the various cases he faces are not just an effort to target him but also the 50% or so of America that supports him. A familiar line from his political stump speech is: “They are not after me. They’re after you. I’m just standing in their way.”

That framing of 91 criminal charges – a charge sheet that would have long sunk any ordinary candidate – has proved to be a very effective way of drawing his base into this battle right alongside him.

It has given the Trump campaign a mission and a purpose ahead of what looks like a likely rematch against President Joe Biden in November. Mr Trump’s legal travails also help to ensure his campaign machinery is greased with the right amount of cash.

His bid for re-election only started to build momentum after the first criminal indictment against him in New York last April.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a news story about New York Attorney General Letitia James as he speaks to the media at one of his properties at 40 Wall Street following closing arguments at his civil fraud trial on January 11, 2024 in New York City.

Image source, Getty Images

Fundraising emails were sent just minutes after news of the charges related to hush money payments to former porn star Stormy Daniels broke in the media. More than $4m (£3.1m) was reportedly raised in the following 24 hours.

After his second indictment in June – on federal criminal changes of mishandling classified documents – the money again poured in. Some $6.6m in a matter of days was reported to have been raised by his campaign.

By the time that iconic mugshot was taken when he was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, in August – on charges of plotting to overturn the state’s 2020 election results – he had perfected the art of making a spectacle out of each indictment.

The campaign brought TV crews with him on his private plane and inside his motorcade to broadcast his every move, live.

Speaking in Washington this week, he claimed that he was only being prosecuted because opinion polls show he is currently leading President Biden. According to most polls, the race is neck and neck.

“I think they feel this is the way they are going to try to and win, and that’s not the way it goes,” Mr Trump said. He predicted there would be “bedlam” in the country if the criminal cases against him prevented his re-election.

The White House has been on the counter-offensive. President Biden used his first major speech of this year on 6 January to warn of the fundamental threat he says Mr Trump poses to American democracy.

This argument – which leans heavily on reminding Americans of what happened when Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol three years ago- will be a major plank of the Democrat’s campaign, which is otherwise struggling to cut through on its positive message about the US economy and that inflation is coming down.

But Mr Trump has already turned the argument on its head for his supporters. In Trump’s world, Mr Biden is “the true destroyer of democracy”.

But the mood – particularly among independents – may change when any of the trials Mr Trump is facing actually get under way.

The 6 January case is particularly perilous for the former president. Voters will hear detailed evidence about how Mr Trump tried to cling on to power after losing the 2020 election. Polls suggest a conviction in that case – and the potential implication of prison time – could become a significant political disadvantage.

But Mr Trump has a strategy for that too. Delay, delay and delay with as many motions and appeals as possible to try and make sure no trial begins until after the election on 5 November.

Because if he returns to the Oval Office after that he will simply instruct his justice department to drop the cases or even – if he’s been convicted – try to pardon himself.

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