Nick Corasaniti and Trip Gabriel | Contributors
As lawyers for Donald J. Trump float various legal arguments to defend him in court against an onslaught of criminal charges, the former president has settled on a political defense: “I’m being indicted for you.” In speeches, social media posts and ads, Mr. Trump has repeatedly declared the prosecutions a political witch hunt, and he has cast himself as a martyr who is taking hits from Democrats and the government on their behalf. “They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom,” Mr. Trump told the crowd at a campaign event in New Hampshire on Tuesday. “They want to silence me because
I will never let them silence you.” In two previous campaigns, 2016 and 2020, Mr. Trump presented himself to voters as an insurgent candidate who understood their grievances and promised to fight for them. Now, however, Mr. Trump has made his 2024 race principally about his own personal grievances — attempting to convince supporters to see themselves in him.
He continues to argue, falsely, that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and to present it as a theft also against his voters. The legal jeopardy he now faces from multiple indictments, he tells followers, is the sort of persecution that they, too, could suffer. There is evidence that the message is resonating. Lorraine Rudd, who attended Mr. Trump’s appearance in New Hampshire, said that after his third indictment last week, in a point-by-point 45-page account of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, she felt that she, too, could be wrongly prosecuted. “If they can do it to him and take him down, they can come for me,” Ms. Rudd, a 64-year old Massachusetts resident, said.
She said she firmly agreed with Mr. Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election. “What, am I next?” she said. In March, when Mr. Trump announced his candidacy before any indictments, he told supporters, “I am your retribution.” The shift to the recent plaint of “I am being indicted for you” suggests a further tailoring of his campaign pitch, as he paints the criminal cases against him as an effort to prevent him from returning to the White House. In June, after being charged with retaining government secrets, Mr. Trump told a Republican gathering in Michigan: “Essentially, I’m being indicted for you.” On Aug. 3, the day of his third indictment, for seeking to overturn the 2020 election, Mr. Trump posted on his social media site that facing fraud and obstruction charges in Washington was an “honor” because, as he wrote in all caps, “I am being arrested for you.”
Portraying himself as a victim of the criminal justice system — and echoing themes from when he faced an investigation over Russian influence in the 2016 campaign and his first impeachment — has served to consolidate Republican support around Mr. Trump. Since his very first indictment in March, in New York on charges related to payments to a porn star, Republican voters have buoyed Mr. Trump in polls. Congressional Republicans, mindful that the party base has largely embraced Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, have leaned into investigations of what they call the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement. And many of Mr. Trump’s 2024 Republican rivals have repeated his pledge to fire the F.B.I. director and end the Justice Department’s traditional independence from the White House.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll released last week, before Mr. Trump’s latest indictment, 71 percent of Republican voters said he had not committed serious federal crimes and that Republicans needed to stand behind him. When a long-shot challenger of Mr. Trump, former Representative Will Hurd of Texas, told a Republican gathering in Iowa recently that the former president was running not to represent people who supported him in 2016 or 2020 but “to stay out of prison,’’ Mr. Hurd was booed. In public comments, Mr. Trump’s lawyers have indicated they will mount a free-speech defense in the latest case related to the 2020 election.
They have argued that anything Mr. Trump said leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot were merely “aspirational” requests. Those include lying about widespread fraud to voters, pressuring Mr. Pence to ignore the Constitution and asking Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough additional votes to help him win the state.
The former president and his allies in the conservative media and in Congress are simultaneously waging a battle for public opinion by accusing Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son, of misconduct in business dealings and trying to tie allegations of shady practices to Mr. Biden himself when he was vice president.
Investigations led by House Republicans have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden, but the effort has convinced many Republicans that Mr. Trump’s indictments are part of a conspiracy to divert scrutiny from Mr. Biden and his family.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Bidens, his likely political rival should he win the G.O.P. nomination. He also continued his personal attacks on Jack Smith, the special counsel in the federal cases against Mr. Trump, calling him “deranged.” And without referring to her by name, he criticized Fani T. Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., who is Black, as a “racist.” She is overseeing a separate investigation into alleged efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies to interfere with the election in the state, where he lost to President Biden.
With Mr. Trump dominating every Republican primary poll, a few 2024 rivals have lately been more direct in challenging him on the subject of the 2020 election. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said this week that “of course” Mr. Trump lost re-election in his most blunt acknowledgment yet of a reality he has tiptoed around for three years. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who could be a star witness in a trial focused on Jan. 6, said that Mr. Trump pushed him to “essentially overturn the election.”
Roughly an hour northwest of Mr. Trump’s rally on Tuesday night, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, one of Mr. Trump’s toughest critics in the race, mocked the former president’s proclamations. “As I’m walking around Ukraine, he’s waltzing into a courtroom in Washington, D.C., to tell us that he’s being indicted for us. For us! How lucky are we! That we have such a selfless, magnanimous leader,” Mr. Christie said, prompting laughter and a sprinkling of applause. “Because you know that the government was coming to get you and on their way to get you, lo and behold, they came across Donald Trump and they said, ‘Okay, we won’t get you, we’ll get him, for you.’”
The narrative of unfair persecution by the criminal justice system, which Republicans as the party of law and order once staunchly defended, has taken strong root among Mr. Trump’s supporters. Steve Vicere, who drove all the way from his home in Florida to see Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, said the indictments were a “diversion” and represented attempts by Democrats to stop Mr. Trump from regaining power. “Everyday freedoms are being systematically taken away, and nobody ever gets held accountable,” Mr. Vicere, 54, said.
Dean Brady, a limo driver from Newmarket, N.H., embraced Mr. Trump’s message that he was taking a hit on behalf of his supporters. “He’s representing us,” Mr. Brady, 60, said. “He’s not in it for himself, he could quit this and just go on with life. He’s up there because he loves America and he cares about us.” But not all Republican voters embrace Mr. Trump’s sense of victimhood.
Jean Davis, who attended a barbecue in Iowa on Sunday to hear seven of Mr. Trump’s G.O.P. rivals, said that his latest indictment ought to disqualify him as a candidate. Her husband, Russ Davis, who supports Mr. DeSantis, said that if Mr. Trump were to become the nominee, his chances of defeating Mr. Biden would be “next to nothing.”
“There are so many people on the Republican side who just can’t get past his loud mouth,’’ he said.
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