Donald Trump campaigned in Iowa over the weekend, but the real closing message — the one that has him up by historic margins in polling — was delivered over a thousand miles away.
“This is a political witch hunt that should be set aside!” Trump said in a courtroom in Manhattan on Thursday before being cut off by the judge in the civil fraud trial against his business. “We should receive damages for what we’ve gone through!”
Trump spent much of the final days in the run-up to January 15 in courtrooms in New York and Washington. He didn’t legally have to be there, but at this point the politics of the move were obvious: Voters reflexively rallied to him whenever he was in trouble. The more visible the trouble, the more they would rally, and the more they would donate when alerted to it with texts and emails. The judge in Manhattan was well aware of the dynamic, asking — unsuccessfully — that Trump not turn his closing remarks into a “campaign rally.”
“I want to go to all of my trials,” Trump said afterwards. “These are all set up by Biden and the Democrats. This is their new form of cheating.”
When he did arrive in Iowa, the message was much the same. “Every time the radical left Democrats, Marxists, Communists, and Fascists indict me, I consider it truly a great badge of honor, because I’m being indicted for you,” he said on Sunday in his sole in-person rally in Iowa.
Typically, the early primary and caucus states reward candidates who rack up facetime with voters. In constantly publicizing his trials, Trump found another way to connect.
“They’ve tried to stop him, and stop him, and stop him, and that man has not given up,” said Wanda Beltramea, a Trump supporter from Cedar Rapids. She’d largely ignored the rest of the GOP field, and was aghast when one canvasser showed up at her home suggesting that Trump might be struck from the ballot — which she couldn’t imagine. “It’s in God’s hands. God has the final say.”
The tone was set early last year ahead of Trump’s first indictment in March. Ron DeSantis faced an instant wave of pushback for even just mentioning the details of the case — an alleged affair with a porn star and hush money payments to cover it up — and quickly dropped it. Trump’s once-flagging poll numbers surged and his lead never came down again.
One senior campaign official noted that the Manhattan D.A. case was widely depicted among Trump critics as the weakest of the various charges circling around him. Recognizing that, top aides to Trump worked early on to define the rest of Trump’s legal troubles around it. As they did, they quickly discovered another benefit: The news tended to push his upstart opponents offstage, denying them oxygen throughout the race.
91 indictments and several civil cases later, nothing significant has changed — Trump’s rally refrain that he’s “being indicted for you,” and his early and repeated promise of “retribution” for those responsible, are the most relevant slogans anyone in the contest has come up with.
“Nobody wants to be indicted, but when the other side is coming at you with so much hate and vitriol, you can’t do anything else but fight back even harder,” Trump’s spokesman Steven Cheung told Semafor. “There is nobody better at weaponizing a negative.”
You could spend thousands of words on how Trump and his allies laid the groundwork for a comeback in Iowa, and how his opponents stumbled on tactics or strategy, but it’s the way voters have continued to identify with his legal struggles — even when they have little to do with his presidency or with policy — that has defined the race. The rest is details.
Trump’s rivals are still desperately looking for an effective counter to the idea that Trump is a fallen martyr who must be resurrected with Republican votes.
Haley has told voters to move past Trump’s “chaos,” but she’s struggled to explain just what percentage of that chaos Trump brings on himself versus how much is unfair punishment meted out by bad actors. “It’s both,” she told CNN.
DeSantis, who answered a question about his biggest regret in the race by complaining the indictments “distorted the primary,” has tried to frame Trump’s problems as a general election liability — regardless of how voters feel about them.
“It’s going to be about January 6, legal issues, criminal trials — the Democrats in the media would love to run with that,” DeSantis said in Wednesday’s debate. “I’m not running for my issues, I’m running for your issues.”
In some cases, rivals have actively leaned into Trump’s frame: “If you want to save Trump, a vote for me is the way to do it,” Vivek Ramaswamy told Iowans on Thursday (a line that seemed to annoy Trump, who otherwise tends to praise Ramaswamy).
This situation isn’t exactly new. Trump was frequently accused by GOP critics of dragging voters into his legal and business soap operas in his first run for president. What’s different this time is that, thanks to his 2016 victory, Republicans have spent seven years developing an elaborate framework and vocabulary to explain away his problems — ”the deep state,” “weaponized government,” “partisan prosecutors”— that his base has fully internalized.
Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen hardened into GOP mythology years earlier with little internal resistance, making it difficult to attack him on electability grounds. Nor is there an easy way for the opposing candidates to litigate the details of his individual criminal charges without sparking a defensive reaction from Republican voters, even a classified documents and cover-up case that reads like a gross parody of his own “Lock her up!” chants against Hillary Clinton. That makes it difficult to name his ethics, competence, or character as the problem either.
In fairness, blaming the candidates for failing to undo the Trump victimization complex feels a bit like blaming individual beat cops for not fixing all the social ills of poverty, mental illness, and addiction. It’s all way too much for any one underdog in a divided field to take on, especially without any significant backup from the broader Republican Party, which mostly resigned itself to Trump’s return when his second impeachment failed.
But the results are obvious: If candidates are unable to challenge Republican voters’ assumption that the last three years featured a traitorous plot to steal the 2020 election followed by a multi-pronged conspiracy to jail and harass Trump ahead of the 2024 election, then it’s hard to argue Trump’s legal issues are some irrelevant distraction. When Trump spends the final days before Iowa posting dozens of unprintable Truth Social rants about E. Jean Carroll, who has already been awarded $5 million by a jury that found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation, it’s a strong closing argument in that context.
Room for Disagreement
Groups working to oust Trump have sworn all year that — whatever Republican voters tell pollsters to stick it to the libs — there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Trump’s daily drama, including in Iowa. And while the base responds to it so far, it seems to be playing less well in independent-heavy New Hampshire, where even Trump’s own campaign polling shows a single-digit race in a two-way contest with Nikki Haley.
- NBC News reviewed Trump’s social media posts throughout the race and found his attention was frequently dominated by his court cases: “For most of the first half of 2023, a larger share of Trump’s posts were dedicated to his legal issues than his presidential campaign, the review found.”
Shelby Talcott and David Weigel contributed to this story.