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Donald Trump lashes out, resorting to old tactics after arraignment hearing

Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a press conference following his court appearance over an alleged 'hush-money' payment, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 4, 2023.
Chandan Khanna
/
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a press conference following his court appearance over an alleged 'hush-money' payment, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 4, 2023.

Faced with criminal charges for the first time for any former president, Donald Trump ripped from a well-worn page in his playbook Tuesday night — lashing out with a, at times, bigoted speech full of lies and conspiracies.

And that's really no surprise.

Any time Trump has had his back against the wall, he's resorted to a familiar script:

  • Blast opponents;
  • Build an air of victimization;
  • Try to discredit accusers, questioning their motives and drawing tenuous lines of guilt by association to create perceived conflicts of interest;
  • Be as provocative as possible to deflect and distract even if that means resorting to conspiracies or simply making things up.
  • It's a version of throwing things at the wall to see if they stick. And with his base, it's been all Velcro.

    "I never thought anything like this could happen in America," Trump said from his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, after flying back from New York, where he pleaded not guilty to felony falsification of business records charges. "The only crime I've committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it."

    It was an odd day to say the least. If you were paying close attention to Trump, you saw two versions — Court Trump and Rally Trump.

    By day, Trump was solemn, somber, stern

    A grim-faced Trump quietly walked into the New York courthouse. The usually bombastic former president let his lawyers do the talking except for saying those two words — "not guilty."

    Trump even stayed quiet, according to those in the room, when the judge warned against making provocative social media posts and statements.

    This is the same judge, acting New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, whom Trump blasted on his social media platform because Merchan presided over two criminal tax fraud cases against the Trump Organization. In a plea deal, Trump's former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty.

    Trump alleged that Merchan "HATES ME," and "railroaded," and "strong armed" Weisselberg and treated his company "VICIOUSLY."

    In court Tuesday, instead of a rejoinder from Trump, it was his recently hired lawyer, Todd Blanche, who did the talking. He told Merchan that Trump was "frustrated, upset, and believes that there is a grave injustice happening with him being in this courtroom today."

    "I don't share your view that certain language and certain rhetoric is just by frustration," Justice Merchan later responded.

    The judge stopped short of issuing a gag order, but he did warn against posting potentially dangerous content that could incite violence.

    "Defense counsel, speak to your client and anybody else you need to, and remind them to please refrain, please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest," Merchan said. "Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals."

    But like everything else with Trump, without enforcement, suggested protocols are just those — suggestions.

    By night, it was back to grandiosity and braggadocio

    It's not often that Americans see Trump cowed — even a little.

    But it's not uncommon to see that version of Trump when he's under oath during depositions or in court proceedings.

    Lying in public, on TV, or during a speech is one thing. Doing it under oath can carry jail time.

    But once Trump was able to jet away from his native New York and back to the friendly confines of Florida, the former president reverted back to victimized campaigner.

    "Our country is going to hell," Trump said.

    He equated the New York charges to nothing more than "election interference." Trump said New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg should "resign."

    He called two other prosecutors, who are or have investigated him and who are Black, "racist." Trump's called Bragg that, too, and an "animal." Bragg is also Black.

    Trump lashed out at Jack Smith, the Justice Department's special counsel, who is investigating Trump's conduct in the handling of classified documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago.

    He referred to him as "Lunatic Jack Smith," then added, "I wonder what his name was before the change."

    He even called the National Archives and Records Administration "radical left."

    And there were countless misleading statements, obfuscations or outright lies that Trump fed to the obsequious crowd.

    This wasn't about adding voters, this was about locking down who already is with him. But therein lies the problem for Trump — the more his grievance politics have become about him, the more views of him from independents (and certainly Democrats) have hardened.

    Case in point: in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 6 in 10 overall said he should not be president, including two-thirds of independents.

    More legal jeopardy likely to come

    Regardless of the merits of this case against Trump in New York — and lots of legal experts have questioned the strength of Bragg's case — Trump still faces at least three other criminal probes with potentially more serious consequences.

    So this case in New York is just a prelude of what the country could see — and the charges Trump could face.

    The next court date in this case isn't until December. A trial wouldn't begin until at least the beginning of the year or into the spring or later.

    That means one could be taking place right in the middle of the Republican presidential primary. And right now Trump is the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination once again. But that would mean a strong possibility of Republicans backing someone with pending criminal charges to advance to a general election.

    At this point, Republicans seem perfectly OK with that. In that same NPR poll, 8 in 10 Republicans have a favorable opinion of Trump, and three-quarters think he should be president again.

    Republican pollster Sarah Longwell, who is no Trump fan, found during one of her focus groups last week that, for the first time, not a single person said they would vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over Trump.

    Ironically, Trump's numbers have improved with the GOP since Trump rang the alarm of a potential arrest. He's boxed out GOP presidential opponents, who are scared of offending the base, especially since even more anti-Trump Republicans, like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, are criticizing the New York case. And, according to his campaign, Trump has raised more than $7 million in the days since the indictment.

    And those fundraising emails keep on coming.

    It's easy to dismiss one case, but what about two or three with more significant potential charges?

    "There is a F-35 missile-armed weapon being piloted by Jack Smith with [Attorney General] Merrick Garland as his wingman in D.C. that's going to get off the ground soon in the Mar-a-Lago obstruction case that will make this look like a water pistol," former Trump White House lawyer Ty Cobb told CNN Tuesday of the New York case — and the potential danger ahead for Trump.

    Trump may actually be able to continue to convince his base he's done nothing wrong — or that they should be OK with what he might have done — but it's hard to see how, in that kind of environment, Trump adds voters.

    And that's what he needs to do because over the last three election cycles, his brand has proven toxic in competitive states and districts — the precise places Republicans need to win to take back the White House.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro
    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.