PALM BEACH, Fla. — Allies, aides, club members and the press were packed into the gilded ballroom of Mar-a-Lago, waiting for former President Donald Trump to arrive. Hours earlier, he’d been hundreds of miles north, getting arrested on charges of falsifying business records over alleged hush money payments to a porn star.
But in the ballroom at the Florida estate, there was no sense of sobriety in the air. It felt, instead, like a MAGA movie set. The room was lit up with bright spotlights for the cameras. And as the assembled guests waited for the man of the hour to arrive, the setting took on the feel of a catwalk for Trump world’s upper crust. Family, staff and top surrogates walked in smiling and waving. The crowd applauded as Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, Tiffany Trump and her husband, Michael Boulos, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Ginger Gaetz walked two-by-two to the front of the room. They were followed by a parade that included Trump advisers, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), and Eric and Lara Trump.
“It’s pretty wild to see these people here celebrating,” remarked Caroline Wren, an adviser to failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who was greeted with cheers as she stepped on the press risers for an interview. “Who has a baby shower when you can have an arraignment party?” She joked.
Four months ago, Trump himself had appeared at Mar-a-Lago under wildly different circumstances. His campaign launch that day was notable for its absence of energy. The reviews were lackluster. Ron DeSantis was ascendant, prompting a top Republican group to release internal polling showing the Florida governor ahead. The party’s poor midterm results loomed over the evening. Critics wondered whether Trump was up for another two-year campaign.
When Trump eventually arrived on Tuesday evening, there was an aura of anger and defiance about him. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” played over the speakers before Trump walked out. When he finally spoke, he ticked off the list of scandals he’s endured and the prosecutors and opponents he’s faced. Each one — he claimed — was biased against him. Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan D.A., was the real “criminal.” Jack Smith, the special prosecutor investigating the lead up to Jan. 6, a “lunatic.”
Tuesday, in a way, was like a campaign relaunch, still grievance-filled but with Trump world feeling that they are in a better position. The polling that just months ago was used as evidence of his failure to rally the base has dramatically shifted, now showing the former president with leads upward of 20 percentage points over DeSantis. It underscored the central paradox of Trump’s political career: His standing benefits from the crises he endures.
“We’re back to all Trump all the time,” said former House Speaker and past presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. “Nothing makes him happier. Now, he’d like it to be more positive than it is, but if his choice was between being totally ignored or being in the middle of a firestorm, he’s in the middle of a firestorm. And he’s good at it.”
Gingrich, who supported Trump in 2016 earlier than many high-profile Republicans, said he used to chuckle as he watched other GOP candidates scramble to break through the Trump news cycles during that primary.
“All these guys would go out spending all their money to buy ads, and Trump would just exist — get more press coverage than all of them combined,” Gingrich said. “Guess what. He’s back.”
Under normal circumstances, having a historic indictment handed down by the Manhattan grand jury against you, and pleading not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records of the first degree, does not qualify as being “back.” But Trump is not your typical candidate.
His team dutifully prepared for Tuesday, considering the choreography of the arraignment, from the drive from Mar-a-Lago to the airport in Palm Beach, to Trump’s speech. No reporters traveled with the ex-president, but he was joined by a videographer who shot footage of the trip, a sign of how his team planned to capitalize on images from the day.
Trump flew up to New York on Monday with a large crew of advisers and aides, including Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, Jason Miller, Steven Cheung, Boris Epshteyn and Dan Scavino. Televisions aboard his private plane were tuned to Fox News, and Trump, according to aides, made tweaks to his planned remarks.
Trump decamped to his Trump Tower penthouse on Monday and was updated by his aides and lawyers. A person close to Trump described him as “resolute” and “ready for the challenge,” but throughout the evening, in a public sign of his deep concern and frustration with the situation, he fired off angry all-caps missives on Truth Social taking aim at Bragg and the Justice Department’s special counsel. Trump was particularly set off by a report that revealed he would face 34 felony counts alleging falsification of business records. It was the first Trump or his legal team had heard of what was in the sealed indictment.
Before departing for court on Tuesday afternoon, the former president huddled with aides in his suite at Trump Tower. He spent part of the time drafting his evening speech. The former president then spent his plane ride back refining the speech and watching coverage of the indictment on the big-screen TV in the cabin of his plane.
Within Trump’s orbit there was a sense that they had found a new grievance to latch onto, and one more compelling and electorally effective than conspiracies about a stolen 2020 election.
“Now, he’s got something that a greater portion of the overall electorate is going to be focused on, and a greater portion of the Republican base believes is true,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based Republican strategist.
While most Republicans expressed concerns about whether the 2020 election “was on the up and up,” Keller added, there is “near unanimity” among conservatives on believing the prosecution of Trump is politically motivated.
Indeed, public polling taken since news broke of a likely Manhattan indictment found that nearly all Republican primary voters believe the case is politically motivated, an opinion shared by most voters across the spectrum, even those who support the indictment, a new CNN poll found.
At Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, there were familiar faces — including Roger Stone, the self proclaimed “dirty trickster,” who chatted with Trump aides and Trump White House physician turned Texas congressman Ronny Jackson, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and former Trump cabinet member Ric Grenell — mingling with guests. There were some unfamiliar ones, too. Nick Simon, a 27-year-old travel agent and Trump Doral member, said he was invited to the event as a club member. Earlier that day, he watched Trump’s arraignment from the golf club restaurant. He compared Trump to Al Capone, the mobster who was eventually arrested on tax evasion. “This is how the guy became president,” Simon said of the media attention for Trump. “He said I’m going to hijack that party.”
Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, showed up on Tuesday to support Trump, as well. He predicted that the indictment would solidify Trump’s “2024 win.” Unless, he added, “we don’t get rid of the electronic voting machines.” A particular Lindell obsession.
What remains to be seen, however, is not the role that electronic voting machines may play but whether Trump can sustain outrage over the indictment for months to come, or how anticipated future indictments in other jurisdictions will play with voters as the facts are revealed.
But the early impact could be visible not just in the temperament Trump brought with him to his address on Tuesday evening, but also the ways in which his GOP competitors were forced to adjust to it all.
News of Trump’s indictment effectively sucked all the oxygen away from his 2024 rivals. On Monday, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made a visit to the southern border that was overshadowed by preparations for Trump’s arraignment. Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) political team on Tuesday went ahead with formally announcing his upcoming early-state swing, a press release sent half an hour before Trump entered the Manhattan courthouse. Even the media appetite for DeSantis news was subdued on Monday and Tuesday, with top headlines on the Florida governor being that Democrats had released an opposition file on him, and the author Judy Blume had critical words about him.
It demonstrated the challenges Trump’s rivals face in going head-to-head with a man who has decades of experience manipulating the media even as he faces unprecedented legal peril.
“Before this indictment it was already tough for any Republican to attack Trump, and the reason is because for the last five years voters were under the belief that if you attack Trump you’re a RINO or establishment Republican,” said a Republican operative close to Trump’s campaign. “Now that got even harder. You’re attacking him while Democrats are going after Trump in New York — how does that not make you look allied with the people who are trying to take him down?”
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