In his first public remarks since he pleaded not guilty to federal criminal charges on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump attempted to persuade his supporters that the case against him is completely illegitimate.
Though it seemed like his camp was initially reticent to address the specifics of the indictment, Trump went into a detailed defense before a crowd at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. He presented alternate histories, legal disinformation, and false claims of political victimization to craft a narrative that he seemed to believe his followers will accept as fact.
Overall, the speech previewed a strategy to neutralize the impact of a case that could stretch well into the 2024 election and beyond. It’s an effort that mirrors Trump’s successful approach to negating previous threats to his political power, including congressional investigations into his involvement in the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and potential collusion between his campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.
In his remarks, Trump cast his second indictment — for allegedly refusing to return classified documents to federal authorities after he left the White House — as a plot against him, calling it “election interference” and “yet another attempt to rig and steal a presidential election.”
“Threatening me with 400 years in prison for possessing my own presidential papers … is one of the most outrageous and vicious legal theories ever put forward in an American court of law,” he said. “They ought to drop this case immediately.”
Trump might not be personally thrilled at being arrested for a second time, if only because he “thinks it’s not elegant,” as his former press secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN. But he clearly recognized that this was a potential make-or-break moment for his campaign in the face of swirling doubts among the GOP donor class, and even some of his political allies who have said that the allegations, if true, make him unfit to be the nominee in 2024.
With the media spotlight on him Tuesday, Trump seized the opportunity to try to convince his party that the latest indictment is more about persecution than prosecution. And if history is any indication, pursuing that strategy may help Trump convince his supporters that he did not do anything wrong, even if a Miami jury ultimately finds him guilty of some or all of the 37 counts against him.
How Trump convinced his supporters that he could do no wrong
Trump argued Tuesday that he’s subject to a nefarious double standard given that his political opponents have never faced charges in connection to retaining documents from their public service.
As “evidence,” he cited cases involving President Joe Biden, his 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, and former President Bill Clinton. In recent months, classified documents were found in Biden’s personal Washington office and at his Delaware home. Hillary Clinton used a private, unsecured email server while serving as secretary of state that stored discussions of classified information (but not classified documents themselves). And Bill Clinton kept tapes in his sock drawer documenting an oral history of his time in the White House.
What Trump failed to mention, of course, is that Biden promptly turned over those documents; there is no evidence that he or Hillary Clinton tried to obstruct justice; and a court found that Bill Clinton’s tapes were personal records that did not need to be turned over to the National Archives. None of those cases gave Trump license to keep classified documents in unsecured locations throughout his personal residence after leaving office and to flout a subpoena requiring that he turn them over.
Nevertheless, Trump’s entreaties seem to be working on the base: The crowd at Bedminster was vocally receptive to his pitch, at times interrupting him with pledges to back him in the GOP primary. Those supporters aren’t alone. A CBS News poll conducted June 9 and 10 — right after news of the indictment broke — found that 76 percent of likely Republican primary voters thought that the indictment was politically motivated and 61 percent said it didn’t change their views on Trump. And an even more recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found 36 percent of Republican voters said the second indictment made them more likely to vote for Trump. All that’s despite the fact that some prominent Republicans have admitted that the details of the indictment are damning if true.
If the strategy Trump unveiled at his golf course works, it wouldn’t be the first time he successfully convinced his supporters that it’s the Washington swamp — not him — that’s the problem.
Special counsel Robert Mueller found in 2019 that Trump’s campaign may have colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election and identified multiple examples in which Trump possibly sought to obstruct justice during his investigation. He did not recommend that Trump be referred for criminal prosecution, in part because of longstanding Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
In response, Trump blasted what he argued was unfair treatment by the FBI and called the investigation the “Russia hoax,” while often repeating the phrase, “no collusion.” He spawned a four-year (now-failed) investigation into what he argued was a criminal conspiracy to frame him. After Mueller’s report was released, a sizable majority of Republican voters consequently believed that he never obstructed justice and wanted Congress not to take any further action.
Similarly, even though the House January 6 committee found that there was enough evidence to convict Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection, his followers believed his rewritten history of what happened that day.
He called it a mere “day of protesting” and argued that the real crime was a stolen 2020 election despite lacking any evidence. He fed into conspiracy theories about the insurrection being a false flag attack that involved Black Lives Matter and antifa. He claimed that Capitol Police were “ushering” people inside the Capitol when they really had broken in. As of March 2023, more than half of Republicans still described the insurrectionists as participating in a “legitimate public discourse.”
Trump appears to believe that he can replicate that strategy of lies and obfuscation when it comes to defending himself in the court of public opinion while the federal criminal case against him proceeds. And it’s possible that winning the public relations battle is the only victory he really needs. If he’s elected president once again, the charges against him would likely become moot.