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Updated Jun 13, 2023, 10:46pm EDT
politics

Trump’s legal defense and 2024 campaign are one and the same

REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
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The Scene

There were no cameras in the Miami courthouse where Donald Trump turned himself in on Tuesday, leaving cable news stuck cycling through legal analysts as not much happened outside.

So Trump gave them something to watch: After pleading “not guilty” to 37 felony counts, he made a surprise visit to famed Cuban restaurant Versailles. Supporters took pictures with him, prayed over him, and even sang “Happy Birthday” for his 77th (“some birthday,” he joked).

On CNN, Jake Tapper asked the network to cut away. “He’s trying to turn it into a spectacle and into a campaign ad,” the host said. 

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Shelby and Benjy's View

He was right — and it was a smart move. On Fox News, which has featured plenty of dour legal takes as well, viewers were suddenly treated to a leader triumphantly surrounded by his fans.

The episode was a preview of where this all is going: The Trump campaign and his legal defense are essentially one and the same.

If there was any doubt, he cleared it up with a rally at Bedminster late that night that stuck to his established playbook.

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He conceded nothing: “I did everything right and they indicted me!” he shouted.

He promised retaliation: A “real special prosecutor” to investigate Biden and his family, undercutting the Republicans defending him as part of a high-minded stand against the appearance of a partisan Justice Department.

And he went on the attack against his top opponent: “raging lunatic” Jack Smith.

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Trump, who said Smith “looks like a thug” and specializes in “political hit jobs,” cited his work on a corruption case against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell that the Supreme Court overturned in a landmark ruling. His approach was all but indistinguishable from the treatment he gave various presidential rivals, right down to targeting Smith’s wife.

The closest Trump came to directly acknowledging the seriousness of the charges he’s facing was a riff on the Espionage Act, which he said “has been used to go after traitors and spies” and should not apply to him (the relevant charges are not about spying and don’t need to be, though there are critics of the broader law in that regard).

By the end of the speech, the line between his presidential and legal campaign had disappeared entirely: “On November 5, 2024, justice will be done, we will take back our country, and we will make America great again,” he said.

There are risks to this approach. Trump’s words can and will be used against him in a court of law, and potentially undercut his lawyers’ strategy (though they vetted his speech, an aide said). He received a reminder of that on Tuesday, when a judge allowed E. Jean Carroll to amend her defamation lawsuit — which already resulted in a $5 million jury decision against him — to include his more recent comments lashing out at her.

But Trump’s also not a normal defendant. He can win the White House and pardon himself. He can bully his rivals into promising to do the same — one of them, Vivek Ramaswamy, has already done so, while Nikki Haley, who has criticized Trump’s conduct, said she was “inclined in favor” of a pardon given her discomfort at the idea of a jailed former president. He can hope the judge he personally appointed, who was excoriated by a circuit court that determined she lent him special treatment in prior rulings, is also uneasy with trying him like a typical accused felon.

Finally, Trump can also hope that the case he’s making daily — that he’s a victim of a partisan witch hunt — seeps into the public, where the court has to find jurors who somehow aren’t tainted by the news surrounding the most famous and polarizing figure in the country. Those restaurant-goers watching him work the crowd? Any one of them could end up in a jury pool.

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Notable

  • How will Trump’s lawyers handle his defense inside the courtroom? Trump’s until-recent attorney Tim Parlatore has also been making the rounds previewing potential weak points in the case, you can read some of his takes in this CBS News roundup. Except a high-stakes fight over whether evidence derived from Trump’s lawyer Evan Corcoran, which a judge previously required turned over as part of a rare “crime-fraud” exception, can be used.
  • The scene inside the courtroom, away from the public eye, was less upbeat. “A grim Donald J. Trump leaned back from the defendant’s table inside a jammed 13th-floor courtroom in Miami on Tuesday, jaw set, arms crossed, his back muscles tensing visibly under his dark suit jacket,” The New York Times wrote.


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