Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Davenport, Iowa, on March 12, 2023. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)
As former President Donald Trump faces likely criminal charges, his campaign is preparing to wage a political war.
With an indictment looming from the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, Trump’s campaign is laying the groundwork for a broad attack on Bragg, a Democrat. According to two of Trump’s political allies, the campaign will aim to portray any charges as part of a coordinated offensive by the Democratic Party against Trump, who is trying to become only the second former president to win a new term after leaving office.
It is unclear what data points, if any, the Trump team plans to point to beyond Bragg’s party registration in order to make a case that the district attorney is part of a broader political conspiracy against the former president. It is also uncertain whether Trump will add lawyers to his legal defense team or bring on a communications adviser to play a more traditional role of responding to what will be a crush of media questions related to a potential indictment.
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Trump’s two allies said his campaign was adding staff members, particularly to focus on pushing out its message and its attacks on the prosecutors. In addition, the campaign has been putting together a database listing everyone — members of Congress, legal experts, media figures — who have cast doubts on the strength of the district attorney’s case, the allies said.
Specifically, his campaign team plans on trying to connect Bragg’s investigation into Trump to President Joe Biden, who is expected to seek reelection. The Justice Department has spent months investigating Trump in separate inquiries into his possession of hundreds of classified documents at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, and his efforts to remain in power after losing the 2020 election.
Those efforts led to the most visible moment when Trump focused the anger of his supporters on the institutions of government, the lead-up to the violent riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Underscoring the degree to which Trump’s campaign is again relying on outrage from his supporters, a campaign official maintained that the nation would not “tolerate” the prosecution and would see it as an effort to influence the 2024 election.
“President Donald J. Trump is completely innocent, he did nothing wrong, and even the biggest, most radical left Democrats are making that clear,” said Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesperson. He listed a series of other investigations that Trump has faced and referred to the Manhattan case as “the nuclear button,” calling it a “political donation” by Bragg “to Joe Biden.” And the Trump team plans to highlight a donation to a political action committee made by philanthropist George Soros, a subject of frequent right-wing attacks, that was intended to help Bragg.
A spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to comment.
Trump’s allies say that tying Biden to what is taking place in Manhattan, New York, will be a key aspect of the campaign’s response. And the degree to which the Trump team plans to make a history-making indictment of a former president a central campaign message is likely to set a new political precedent.
“A Trump indictment will immediately be added to his campaign platform and talking points, another first in presidential politics,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist who has observed Trump and presidential campaigns for decades.
While he was in office, Trump was shielded by a Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president.
Already, Trump has spent the better part of two years attacking Bragg, who is Black, as “racist” and as continuing efforts to harm him, after two impeachment inquiries and a two-year special counsel investigation into whether he obstructed justice and whether his 2016 campaign conspired with Russians.
But since declaring his third presidential campaign in November, Trump has made attacking the investigators an increasingly intense focus.
Other political allies of Trump made clear that there would be efforts to highlight how his Republican rivals handle the news of any indictment and whether they endorse it or defend him. Trump’s allies said his advisers believed the issue could tie some of his opponents in knots, particularly his closest prospective opponent in public polls: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
Trump has often subjected anyone who investigates him or holds him to scrutiny to slashing attacks. It remains to be seen whether the campaign’s approach will be more of the same or will deploy new tactics, such as television ads.
When Trump was in office and facing the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, some of his lawyers initially tried to follow the playbook established by aides to President Bill Clinton during his impeachment inquiry in the 1990s. In that case, separate, parallel operations were created so the work of the government could continue.
But Trump, who often conflates legal and public relations issues, rejected that idea. So there was only briefly a designated spokesperson handling press questions.
People involved in Trump’s legal case have discussed bringing on a new lawyer to add to the existing team of Susan Necheles, a Manhattan criminal defense lawyer, and Joe Tacopina, a New York lawyer with a brawler’s attitude.
Tacopina has been an aggressive defender of Trump on television. On Tuesday on MSNBC, Tacopina made several points attacking the credibility of the key witness, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. But other comments he made left some of Trump’s allies stunned by what he was articulating.
Tacopina bluntly stated that there was a political benefit to Trump from an indictment.
“If they bring this case, I believe this will catapult him into the White House,” Tacopina said of Trump on MSNBC. “I believe it, because this will show how they’re weaponizing the justice system.”
Tacopina insisted that what Trump did — signing off on reimbursement payments to Cohen, who had made a $130,000 hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who said she had an affair with Trump — was done at Cohen’s suggestion and “was not a crime.”
At one point, as the interviewer, Ari Melber, was reading from a piece of paper, Tacopina tried to grab it unsuccessfully across the set. When Tacopina was pushed on why Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One in 2018 that he did not know about the payments, he insisted it was not a lie.
“A lie to me is something material under oath in a procedure,” Tacopina told Melber.
“Here’s why it’s not a lie,” Tacopina added. “Because it was a confidential settlement. So if he acknowledged that, he would be violating the confidential settlement.”
He went on: “So, is it the truth? Of course it’s not the truth. Was he supposed to tell the truth? He would be in violation of the agreement if he told the truth. So by him doing that, by him doing that, he was abiding by not only his rights, but Stormy Daniels’ rights.”
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