The escalating criminal jeopardy confronting Donald Trump has restored him to his political comfort zone, according to advisers and allies: counterattacking, with prominent Republicans largely behind him.
And the campaign is working to turn the case into pressure on Trump’s primary rivals, forcing them to take questions about Trump and risk the blowback of offering anything less than full-throated support. In particular, the campaign has ramped up attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Trump’s top competitor in early 2024 primary polls. He took his biggest swipe at Trump so far on Monday by distancing himself from the New York case’s lewd circumstances, even as he attacked it as politically motivated.
As the investigation into Trump’s role in hush-money payments made to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels nears an apparent conclusion, Trump campaign advisers and others familiar with the effort, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss internal strategy, are relishing expressions of support from Republicans all across the party. The overall result is a familiar and, in his advisers’ assessment, favorable terrain for Trump: the center of attention, the dominant figure in his party and on offense.
But advisers privately acknowledged many potential pitfalls. The campaign has not worked out the logistics of simultaneously mounting a presidential run and facing a criminal trial — possibly more than one, with ongoing probes in Fulton County in Georgia and under Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith. It has never been attempted by a candidate from a major party.
Whatever plans the campaign does make could be swiftly upended by the candidate himself, as on Saturday when he surprised his own groggy advisers by announcing on social media that he could be arrested as soon as Tuesday. The campaign is separate from Trump’s legal team, and the two are not always acting in concert, advisers said. And the candidate is not always taking advice from either team.
The Trump campaign is aiming to position the potential prosecution as the latest politicized “witch hunt” targeting the former president. This will amount to an attack on all Republicans that forces everyone to pick a side, unifying them around him as the leader before they have the chance to review the allegations in the prosecutors’ case.
“This is the new normal. The president has been battle-tested,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. “This operation has been fine-tuned since 2016. Dealing with these types of news cycles, you learn to get good at it. We have a full-spectrum response operation on the campaign that can deal with anything that comes our way.”
While Trump’s team expects a continued boost in fundraising, polling and conservative media coverage surrounding a potential indictment — similar to the reaction to the FBI’s search of the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., last August in the classified documents case now under Smith’s purview — Trump’s unprecedented legal turmoil could be a drag on him and other Republicans in the general election.
One person familiar with the matter said there have been many discussions in Trump’s orbit on whether the indictment from Bragg makes it more likely that others follow. Several advisers see some of the other cases as more legally perilous for Trump.
In the face of attacks from Republicans, Bragg’s office has defended its work. “We will not be intimidated by attempts to undermine the justice process,” a spokesperson for Bragg said Monday.
Criminal charges could add to concerns about Trump’s electability that have developed even among his loyal fans, and they could hinder his efforts to secure major donors and endorsements. And as much as Trump likes playing the victim and has privately vowed to look tough and fight the charges, some advisers said he does not actually want to be seen in handcuffs or in a mug shot.
“Being indicted I don’t think ever helps anybody,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, an ex-Trump adviser turned potential 2024 rival, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “You can look at Alvin Bragg as the Manhattan D.A., see that he’s a partisan … but you can also think that Donald Trump is not someone who could be a winning general election candidate for the Republican Party because of all these things.”
It didn’t take much prodding from the campaign to trigger many Republicans’ reflex to line up in support of Trump under siege. The response wasn’t confined to the friendliest voices and outlets, such as the podcast hosted by the former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon; the Wall Street Journal editorial board, former National Review writer Jonah Goldberg and Fox News anchor Dana Perino have also criticized Bragg’s case.
“It does make the conversation of the primary all about Trump, which is a good dynamic he had going for him in 2016, everyone being asked to react to Trump,” a Republican operative familiar with Trump’s campaign effort said. “We’re right now fighting a primary so all that matters is the party, and we can deal with the general after.”
The notable exception has been DeSantis, who took the opportunity at a Monday news conference to brush back at Trump: “Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” he said. “I can’t speak to that.” The former president has denied having an affair with Daniels.
The dig irked Trump and his advisers, with one calling it “trying to be too cute by half.” The former president drafted a social media post that made baseless insinuations about DeSantis, and he circulated it for approval, people briefed on what happened said.
DeSantis allies argued that Trump was the one damaging himself with brazen attacks on the governor he once endorsed.
“The Trump people expect [DeSantis] to throw himself into the service of Donald Trump at all times, because guess what? That’s what Republicans have done since 2016,” said David Reaboi, a media consultant and former Trump supporter who now prefers DeSantis as a presidential candidate. “If somebody was going to challenge Donald Trump, they have to put an end to that.”
A representative for DeSantis declined to comment on the criticisms of the governor’s reaction to the indictment.
After months of brushing off Trump’s barbs, DeSantis further sharpened a more combative posture toward him in an interview with conservative commentator Piers Morgan, excerpts of which were published Tuesday by the New York Post. Asked about leaders’ personal conduct, DeSantis contrasted Trump with others, according to the article, and said, “You really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers, like what type of character — it’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think what type of character are you bringing?”
Trump allies immediately responded. “While the entire conservative movement is united against the unjust indictment of President Donald Trump, Governor DeSantis is choosing to go off half-cocked and take shots on some low-rent vlog,” said Taylor Budowich, who runs Trump’s main super PAC, MAGA Inc.
The Trump campaign also has been relentlessly attacking Bragg. On Monday, it blasted out a long list of critical articles about Bragg, styling him a “woke tyrant,” “rogue prosecutor” and “progressive activist.” Trump has gone after Bragg for investigating him instead of prioritizing street crime in New York, often by exaggerating statistics.
Without explanation, Trump also has painted Bragg as racist, using the same term to describe New York attorney general Letitia James, who is suing his company for allegedly fraudulent business practices, and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is considering charges related to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. Bragg, James and Willis are all Black.
The campaign also plans to relentlessly attack Cohen, the former attorney for Trump who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in the hush money payments and has been cooperating with Bragg’s investigation. Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s pursuit of a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. The campaign has compiled a list of Cohen’s record of lying, advisers said. En route to a stop in Iowa last week, Trump called Cohen a “sick person.”
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, has said, “The facts and documents speak for themselves.”
The campaign also has been peppering supporters with fundraising appeals. Some are purporting to be collecting signatures for a “NO ARREST” petition or a “1,500 percent” match for contributions, common and often misleading tactics aimed at encouraging people to give immediately.
Trump’s Saturday morning post to his Truth Social website predicting that he would be arrested Tuesday and calling for supporters to protest, woke up many of his advisers, who were staying around Palm Beach and were suddenly flooded with calls from reporters and others. But it accomplished one thing Trump cared about: pushing Republicans to defend him. Trump had complained in recent days that no one was going on TV to defend him.
“It will backfire spectacularly,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said to reporters on Tuesday of a potential indictment.
At least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), predicted a similar political outcome, suggesting that the case could have a “reverse effect.”
Other Democrats have largely avoided discussing Trump’s legal situation, and the White House is not expected to weigh in, even though the Bragg investigation is not a federal case. But Democrats have seized on the response of House Republicans as further evidence that the congressional investigations of the Biden administration and his family are largely political exercises.
“The hypocrisy of House Republicans rushing to Trump’s defense for possible crimes his own former attorney went to jail for while they investigate every QAnon conspiracy theory about Joe Biden is gobsmacking. These folks have no credibility and apparently no shame,” said Brad Woodhouse, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Congressional Integrity Project. “But the reality is that the indictment of a former president is a story that will tell itself.”
Liz Goodwin and Paul Kane contributed to this report.
2024 presidential candidates
Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.
Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.
Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.