Donald Trump was arraigned Tuesday on 37 federal criminal charges relating to his refusal to return classified documents he took when he left the White House. That is the inescapable reality, but Trump is doing everything he can to distract from it and turn it into a rallying point for his supporters and a fundraising boost for his campaign … or whoever the money ends up going to.
At his court appearance, Trump was treated with extreme deference: He didn’t have a mugshot taken, there were no travel restrictions imposed, and he didn’t have to surrender his passport. He is allowed to have contact with other people related to the case as long as they don’t discuss the case—and that’s on the honor system. Trump and other Republicans have claimed that there are two systems of justice, with him facing the harsher one. But everything about his treatment Tuesday showed the real differences between how the justice system treats powerful people and the average criminal defendant.
Following the court appearance Trump headed to a restaurant and bakery filled with his supporters, leading CNN’s Jake Tapper to call on his network to cut away from the event, saying, “I don’t need to see any more of that. He’s trying to turn it into a spectacle and into a campaign ad. That is enough of that. We’ve seen it already.” Trump was in no way done with turning it into a spectacle and a campaign ad, though. Tuesday night he made a speech to supporters at his Bedminster golf club, spewing out lies and grievances and attacks.
Trump made the emotional core of his appeal remarkably explicit in that speech.
When I’m reelected, and we will get reelected, we have no choice, we’re not going to have a country anymore. I will totally obliterate the deep state, we will obliterate the deep state—and we know who they are, I know exactly who they are.
They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom, it’s very simple. They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you, they want you silenced. I am the only one that can save this nation, because you know, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you, and I just happen to be standing in their way and I will never be moved.
Trump is, in his telling, a victim himself—the victim rhetoric flowed freely in his Tuesday appearances—but he is also a savior. He is directly framing himself as a Christ figure here, the one who will be persecuted and sacrificed to redeem his followers. As Trump struggles to maintain control of the Republican Party following losses in three election cycles in a row, he is using these criminal charges to intensify the bond his fans feel with him, telling them that his jeopardy is their jeopardy (although few, if any, of them hid classified documents in a shower and lied to federal investigators about it) and that, literally, “I am the only one that can save this nation.”
That wasn’t all, of course. Trump lied. He lied so much. He lied about the documents he’s charged with unlawfully retaining, claiming he “had every right” to keep them. He lied about what the Presidential Records Act says. He lied about what documents other former presidents have kept under what terms. He lied about the legality of the investigation into his actions. It was one lie after another—typical Trump.
In further typical Trump rhetoric, his Bedminster speech was laced with attacks on the people he sees as responsible for his situation. Special counsel Jack Smith, he claimed, “does political hit jobs” for a living, following on an earlier claim that Smith has a “history of targeting conservatives.” In fact, Smith is a former head of the Justice Department’s public integrity section who has prosecuted both Democrats and Republicans. Trump also claimed that Smith is “a raging and uncontrolled Trump hater, as is his wife.” Smith is an independent who has never given any public sign of his political leanings, though his wife did contribute money to the Biden campaign and is a filmmaker who produced what Trump called “that Michelle Obama puff piece.” And of course no Trump speech would be complete without attacks on President Joe Biden, so he accused Biden of having “had his top political opponent arrested on fake and fabricated charges” (in reality Biden reportedly learned about the indictment when the rest of us did) and recycled the current House Republican claim that Biden “took a $5 million bribe from Ukraine,” a second-hand claim that was investigated in 2020 by a Trump appointee who could not corroborate it.
But meanwhile, amid the self-pitying and the attacks and claim that “I am the only one that can save this nation,” Trump has to contend with this reality:
Under all the showmanship, “He’s scared s---less,” former White House chief of staff John Kelly told The Washington Post. “This is the way he compensates for that. He gives people the appearance he doesn’t care by doing this. For the first time in his life, it looks like he’s being held accountable. Up until this point in his life, it’s like, I’m not going to pay you, take me to court. He’s never been held accountable before.”
Donald Trump is facing even more legal jeopardy and the sharks in the Republican Party seem to sense there is some blood in the water. Chris Christie has made his campaign all about going directly at Trump, and Ron DeSantis seems to be closer and closer to becoming completely isolated from the field.