DAVID KLEPPER AND ALI SWENSON | AP NEWS
Former President Donald Trump and his supporters are reacting to a third indictment against him with a now-familiar playbook: deflecting with unrelated accusations, distracting with misleading claims about the charges, and demonizing the prosecution.
Instead of convincing his followers about the seriousness of the charges, Tuesday’s indictment is being held up as proof of a conspiracy to take down the Republican ex-president and a continuation of the effort by Democrats, the media and the so-called deep state to interfere with the nation’s elections.
For years Trump has told his supporters that elections can’t be trusted and that he is a victim of a corrupt persecution by the government and media. With that narrative endorsed by conservative news outlets and amplified on social media, it’s only natural that many of Trump’s supporters will accept it, said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian who studies authoritarian propaganda. “He’s set up the idea since 2016 that elections themselves are corrupt and cannot be trusted. This is seven years now of this narrative,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Trump is one of the most superb propagandists of the 21st century.
He has created this seamless world, where to his followers, everything just confirms his victimhood.” Trump’s repeated lies about the election are at the heart of the latest indictment, which alleges Trump sought to overturn his 2020 election loss in the two months before his supporters violently assaulted the U.S. Capitol. “The attack on our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” special counsel Jack Smith said Tuesday. “As described in the indictment, it was fueled by lies.
Lies by the defendant targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the U.S. government, the nation’s process of collecting, counting, and certifying the results of the presidential election.” Separately, the ex-president faces charges that he falsified business records relating to hush money payments to a porn actor in New York and improperly kept classified documents at his Palm Beach, Florida, resort and obstructed an investigation into their handling.
To his most dedicated supporters, the allegations against Trump are just more evidence of the conspiracy. It’s a sentiment that spread quickly on social media after Trump’s first and second indictments, and it was easily found Wednesday on Telegram, Gab, Truth Social and other platforms popular with conservatives. “The Democrats stole the 2020 election,” conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza posted on Truth Social and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “This indictment is an attempt to protect the thieves and legitimize the heist.” Much of the misinformation about the indictments has originated with Trump, who instead of trying to minimize his legal jeopardy has made it a centerpiece of his campaign, framing it as an assault on democracy, freedom and his own followers.
The former president’s allies — and his legal defense team — argue that the indictment illegally criminalizes Trump’s protected freedom of speech. Trump attorney John Lauro said on CNN on Tuesday that the team’s “focus is on the fact that this is an attack on free speech and political advocacy.” “Free speech will not survive if this indictment succeeds,” former Trump adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News. Fox News host Greg Gutfeld piggybacked on the narrative, saying, “You have every right to think an election might be rigged or fixed.” Prosecutors seem to have anticipated this response, explicitly conceding in the indictment that Trump had the First Amendment right to lie about election fraud.
The indictment argues instead that Trump broke the law when his lies transformed into actions, from attempts to overturn the election to obstructing official proceedings and conspiring to block citizens’ right to have their vote counted. “The Defendant had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election and even to claim, falsely, that there had been outcome-determinative fraud during the election and that he had won,” the indictment reads.
Instead of digging into the details of the indictment, many Trump supporters pointed to the criminal charges facing Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, and claimed without evidence that Biden was involved in his son’s business dealings while in office.
They suggested the recent indictments were timed to distract from news about the Biden family, and questioned why prosecutors weren’t investigating the Biden administration instead of Trump. Other partisans talking about the case on social media focused on the law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and judge involved in the case. On X, photos of Smith circulated with the text “The face of pure evil.” Some posts called him a “hit man” or a “legal terrorist.”
Others dug into the biography of U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan and called into question her fairness, noting that she was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and was a partner at a law firm that once employed Hunter Biden. “Do you know Judge Chutkan who will preside over the new Trump indictment worked with Hunter Biden?? It’s all a con,” posted Sebastian Gorka, a former national security aide under Trump.
Both Chutkan and Hunter Biden worked at the firm of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, but no evidence has come to light suggesting they worked closely together. Boies Schiller Flexner is a large, well-known firm with 13 offices in three countries and more than 170 attorneys listed on its website. The firm did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.
Trump responded to the charges against him with a fundraising message misleadingly suggesting the indictment was “over the events that took place on January 6th,” ignoring the two months leading up to the Capitol riots that were central to the charges. Trump saw a surge in fundraising following both of his previous indictments.
The former president also invoked past global horrors, saying in a statement, “The lawlessness of these persecutions of President Trump and his supporters is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes.” Trump’s campaign did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
Trump’s use of the charges against him on the campaign trail means the volume of misinformation about the indictments, the Jan. 6 attack and the 2020 election is likely to increase, said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. The stakes for Trump couldn’t be higher: He seeks a political comeback while also fighting to remain a free man.
“I think we’re just getting started,” Vertenten said.
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