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Donald Trump’s unprecedented presidential campaign: From courtroom appearances to rallies

The former president is trying to turn his legal troubles into PR opportunities in a bid to distract the public’s attention from other contenders in the Republican primaries

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump waves to supporters at Versailles restaurant on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Miami.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Macarena Vidal Liy

What Rick’s Café was for the exiles in the movie Casablanca, Versailles is for the deeply rooted Cuban-American community in Miami. It’s an iconic restaurant: a place to see and be seen. Where, amidst guava pastries, pork and plantains, and the gilt-framed photos of aging celebrities, diners dream of traveling to a Cuba free of the communist legacy of Fidel Castro and his political heirs.

Visiting Café Versailles was the first thing Donald Trump did when he walked out of a city courthouse last Tuesday after pleading not guilty to 37 charges stemming from classified documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence and private club.

The former president expected a hero’s welcome, and he got it: everyone there rushed to greet him, take selfies, stage a group prayer and sing “Happy Birthday” — it was a day before his 77th birthday. “Food for everybody!” Trump exclaimed, smiling, amid applause and as he shook one hand after another. “I think it is a rigged deal here. We have a rigged country, we have a country that is corrupt. We have a country that’s got no borders, we have a country that’s got nothing but problems. We’re a nation in decline,” he said, repeating one of his favorite campaign arguments. More supporters crowded outside the doors of the restaurant, hoping to be able to see and speak to their political idol.

Trump’s appearance at Café Versailles was calculated down to the millimeter. In typical Trump style, the idea was to demonstrate that the court cases against him — however serious they may be — are not affecting him. That he is still in control, that he still has many supporters and that he is in no way considering withdrawing from the race for the White House (under U.S. law, he can still run even if he is indicted). Anyone else in his position may have opted to lie low after Tuesday’s arraignment in Miami. But not Trump. He took advantage of the occasion and turned it into a political rally in Café Versailles — one of the places in the city where he knew he would be enthusiastically welcomed by an audience who considers U.S. President Joe Biden to be a dangerous socialist.

Trump would repeat this same strategy a few hours later at his golf club in Bedminster, in the state of New Jersey. Speaking at a fundraiser, he said the indictment — the second to be filed against him in three months — was “yet another attempt to rig and steal a presidential election.”

Given the number of cases against him, and the possibility of future indictments, Trump is likely to have ample opportunity to repeat this strategy. The former president is a firm believer in “all publicity is good publicity.” And, in an election campaign where he is likely to be moving back and forth between the courtroom and rallies, Trump has set out to turn his court appearances into a campaign event. He is aim is not to present himself as a man accused of serious crimes against democracy and national security, but rather as the innocent victim of a political witch hunt launched by a politicized justice system and Democratic rivals with autocratic inclinations.

“They want to take away my freedom because I will NEVER let them take away your freedom!” he shared on his social media network Truth Social on Friday.

Trump is facing several different cases. In the Mar-a-Lago investigation, he is accused of obstruction of justice, making false statements and violating the Espionage Act for keeping dozens of boxes of classified material after leaving office. In the Stormy Daniels case, he faces charges of falsifying business records to cover up hush money paid to a porn star. And Trump is also being investigated over the role he played in the events leading up to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and over whether he attempted to alter the outcome of the 2020 election in Georgia. What’s more, columnist Jean Carroll, who was awarded $5 million after a New York jury found the former president liable for sexual abusing and defaming her, was granted a request to seek additional damages. The case is pending appeal.

But none of this seems to matter to Republican voters. A survey published by NPR found that 64% of Republicans want Trump to be the party’s presidential candidate, while 83% believe he should stay in the White House race. According to the poll, support for Trump among Republican and Republican-leaning independents has even risen eight percentage points since February. The percentage of Republicans who believe the former president has done nothing wrong has also jumped five points since March. According to Trump’s campaign, Trump has raised more than $6.6 million since the latest indictment.

Climbing a mountain

Trump’s support among Republicans may grow further if his legal problems continue to dominate the news: the more people talk about Trump and the cases against him, the less they will talk about the other Republican presidential hopefuls, who are trailing far behind him. Trump’s main rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is dozens of points behind, according to polls.

The former president “still maintains three significant advantages that DeSantis and the other candidates will have to climb a mountain to overcome,” writes analyst Natalie Jackson in the respected blog Sabato’s Crystal Ball. She explains that firstly, Trump’s support in primary polls is over 50%, secondly, “Republicans think Trump is their best bet against Biden” — a CBS News-YouGov poll found that 62% believe Trump would definitely win —, and thirdly, “Republicans would rather have a nominee they agree with than an electable one.”

Given those numbers, most Republicans are keeping any criticism they may have of Trump to themselves. Publicly, the party has closed ranks around the former president, with everyone from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to DeSantis arguing that Trump is a victim of the justice system’s double standards. In the classified documents case, however, there is little talk of how former vice president, Mike Pence, quickly returned the classified material he had found at his Indiana home, and as a result faced no charges.

That could change, though. A small number of Republican politicians have been less supportive of Trump in the classified documents case. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley — who is also running in the Republican presidential primaries — said if the indictment proved to be true, “Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security,” while Pence — another presidential hopeful — said the charges were “very serious.”

Everything will depend on how the campaign unfolds, Trump’s legal vicissitudes and the results of the Republican primaries. The candidate with the most support of the Republican Party’s rank and file may not necessarily be the person who inspires the most confidence in the general public.

Indeed, according to the NPR poll, the rest of the country is much more skeptical about Trump. Fifty-six percent (87% of Democrats, 58% of independents) believe that Trump should drop out of the race, while 50% of independents believe the former president broke the law — a nine point jump since March.

As his legal and political outlook becomes clearer, Trump is expected to perform more Café Versailles-like stunts. Preferably, with better results for the diners. According to the Miami New Times, although Trump offered “food for everyone!”, the former president left after 10 minutes, reportedly without footing anyone’s bill.

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