For Trump, the Show and the Campaign Must Trudge On
Donald J. Trump went to bed Tuesday night, on the eve of his 77th birthday, as a now twice-indicted former president and current front-runner for the Republican nomination for the White House in 2024.
“Some birthday,” Mr. Trump grumbled on Tuesday as he visited Versailles, a popular Cuban coffee shop in Miami. “Some birthday.”
He had just been arraigned on federal charges. His co-defendant was working as his valet. And he didn’t eat Cuban — he had McDonald’s. On his plane headed back to New Jersey from Miami, Mr. Trump ate the fast food while holding court with advisers and finishing edits on the speech he would soon deliver and mostly adhere to.
The surreal scene that awaited him at his private club in Bedminster, N.J., was a blend somewhere between a summer garden wedding and a political victory party. There was an air of an almost post-arraignment celebration as women arrived in their finery: fuchsia and canary yellow dresses, embroidered Trump wares and heels. Men sported suits and red MAGA hats.
Then Mr. Trump arrived. Visibly deflated after pleading not guilty for the second time in three months, his dry and low-energy resuscitation of his legal defense — even inflected with the usual references to Marxists, Communists and fascists — pleased his advisers but drew a relatively muted response from a crowd that had minutes earlier craned their phones for a shot of his motorcade.
He had entered to the same track — “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood — that he has used as an entrance theme so many times before. On Tuesday, the chorus landed differently.
Proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.
“I did everything right,” Mr. Trump declared in his 30-minute speech, “and they indicted me.”
When he finished, he barely lingered to take in the applause. He gave an obligatory fist pump and mouthed thanks to the crowd. Then he turned and went inside.
All told, the day encapsulated the remarkable numbness to the extraordinary that has defined the Trump era. The former president entered federal court as a criminal defendant, and now faces hundreds of years in prison. The Republican front-runner’s early 2024 calendar now includes not only key caucuses and primaries but court dates. His rivals are at times contorting themselves while discussing his alleged crimes; one circulated a petition on Tuesday demanding they all promise to pardon him.
Mr. Trump’s appearance in a Miami courtroom was a humiliating moment for a New York businessman with a 40-year history of engaging in gamesmanship with prosecutors and regulators, viewing most every interaction as a transaction or something he could bluster his way through. By 2017, he had the armor of the presidency protecting him when the first special counsel investigating him, Robert S. Mueller III, began his work. And by 2021, as investigations began into his efforts to thwart the transfer of power, he had come to see another campaign as a shield against prosecutions.
But that grandeur — and legal insulation — had vanished on Tuesday. Instead, Mr. Trump’s team tried to create the sense of a man still in power. In Bedminster, he spoke with the white columns of the main house of his New Jersey golf club behind him. The indictment became another backdrop for the ongoing Trump Show.
He was comforted by a motley assortment of his most fervent supporters. They included former President Richard Nixon’s son-in-law; a former New York Police Department commissioner whom Mr. Trump pardoned in the final year of his presidency; and a former administration official whom Mr. Trump named as a representative to the National Archives.
It was the National Archives that began the winding road that ended with Mr. Trump facing charges alleging that he had defied a subpoena and kept highly classified documents. The agency, which is in charge of preserving presidential records, spent most of 2021 trying to compel Mr. Trump to return boxes of materials that he had taken with him when he left the White House. So did some of his lawyers and advisers. When he finally returned 15 boxes in January 2022, archives officials discovered nearly 200 individual classified documents, and alerted the Justice Department.
On Tuesday night in Bedminster, what amounted to a red-carpet MAGA crowd mingled to a carefree playlist of Trump-favored throwbacks: “Macho Man” by the Village People, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli, “We Will Rock You” by Queen, “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. Dozens of women wore matching red-white-and-blue outfits and chanted “We love Trump!” in unison as Mr. Trump was airborne.
The arraignment date happened to coincide with Mr. Trump’s first major fund-raiser, with those who had raised at least $100,000 invited to a “candlelight dinner” after his speech. The Trump campaign will be paying Mr. Trump’s private business in donor dollars for both events, a practice he has done for years.
Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor in Dallas and an early supporter who said he would not “abandon” Mr. Trump, got a call from a staffer for the former president on Monday, asking him to attend. He said Mr. Trump’s supporters saw the charges as “political.”
“I think they see this as Biden’s way of getting rid of his No. 1” opponent, he said, as music blared behind him.
Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, missed votes in Washington to be there to cheer for Mr. Trump.
The gathering in Bedminster and Mr. Trump’s not-quite impromptu cafe stop in Miami were reminiscent of how he handled the gravest political threat he faced in his first 2016 campaign: the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. Back then, he immersed himself in a crowd of his supporters outside Trump Tower. Now, he did so both at his own property and in a friendly corner of a city where he will soon face trial.
“You see where the people are,” Mr. Trump said after he was serenaded with a brief rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the Cuban cafe, called Versailles, where he also stopped to pose for a picture with a mixed martial arts fighter.
He seemed determined to project nonchalance as much as defiance. His co-defendant and valet, Walt Nauta, continued to assist him throughout the day, even as the judge cautioned against the two men discussing the case, after traveling to court as part of Mr. Trump’s motorcade staff. Ever image-conscious, Mr. Trump had entered the courthouse in Miami out of the sightlines of cameras, and he avoided a mug shot and handcuffs for the second time.
The act of indicting him, Mr. Trump said, “will go down in infamy.” And he pledged to appoint a “real special prosecutor” once he’s president again to go after President Biden and his family.
“The seal is broken by what they’ve done,” he added.
Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. @ShaneGoldmacher
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT
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