But as soon as the former president returned home, to his namesake ballroom filled with his adoring fans, he was a rock star again, and he snapped back to his usual combative posture, lashing out at the prosecutor and judge in personal terms, despite the latter’s admonition Tuesday to watch his words.
In contrast to the scowl Trump wore all day, his seething speech was delivered to an ebullient crowd, packed with the “Front Row Joes” who frequent every rally, a group of bikers wearing “Born to Ride for Donald J. Trump” leather vests, longtime adviser Roger Stone, and a handful of loyal lawmakers, such as Reps. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.). Many other prominent Republicans, such as senators and national committee members, passed on the invitation, billed as a “memorable and historic evening!”
“It’s weird to see all these people celebrating,” said Caroline Wren, a pro-Trump fundraiser who attended with Kari Lake, the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate and election denier who received chants of “Kari Won!” “Who has a baby shower, we need to have an arraignment party.”
The split-screen highlighted the two worlds Trump is spanning as he makes a third straight bid for the presidency: one in which he is a defiant political hero and early polling leader for the 2024 Republican nomination, and another in which he is in increasing legal peril.
Hours after Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts related to payments intended to silence an adult-film actress during his 2016 presidential run, his event here Tuesday night was set up like a wedding, with a center aisle down which Trump was preceded by Donald Trump Jr. and his fiancee, Kimberly Guilfoyle; daughter Tiffany Trump and her husband; Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and his fiancee; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.); and Eric Trump and wife Lara.
MyPillow CEO and election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell entered to cheers during the theme from “Phantom of the Opera.” Some campaign advisers who’d traveled with Trump to New York walked in to David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.”
Trump’s wife, Melania, whose wedding was the ballroom’s inaugural event in 2005, did not appear on Tuesday.
Lake, speaking from the Mar-a-Lago ballroom to the Right Side Broadcasting Network, said Trump’s spirits were lifted by the crowds who came out to see him, and he raised his fist upon returning to the club, repeating the gesture he made earlier while leaving Trump Tower for court in New York. Trump traveled with a large coterie of aides, some of whom tried to cheer him up by showing him tweets, statements and interviews criticizing the indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
He did not bring reporters on the plane, as he has to recent campaign stops, and he did not approach the cameras to make a statement while heading in or out of court. One of his lawyers, Todd Blanche, characterized him as “absolutely frustrated and upset and believes there is a grave injustice happening with him being in this courtroom today.”
Blanche gave the description by way of explanation for Trump’s recent inflammatory statements about Bragg and the judge, Juan M. Merchan. During the arraignment, Merchan said he appreciated the importance of Trump’s freedom of speech, especially while running for president, but disagreed that his language was merely expressing frustration. The prosecution referenced a social media post by Trump that showed a photo of him holding a baseball bat next to an image of Bragg. Merchan asked Trump to “Please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest” or engaging in rhetoric that will “jeopardize the rule of law.”
But when he spoke Tuesday night, Trump did not back off his attacks, calling Merchan “a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family.” Trump also singled out Merchan’s daughter, about whom Trump’s adult sons shared articles on social media.
Trump also lit into the other ongoing investigations hounding him, especially the probe by the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., over Trump’s pressure on officials to overturn the 2020 election results there, and the federal investigation into his handling of classified documents overseen by special counsel Jack Smith. The crowd booed at the mention of Bragg and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has a civil case against Trump’s business. Many of Trump’s statements about the case were not factually supported. Many of his advisers continue to view the New York case as the weakest one.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America. Never thought it could happen,” Trump said in a speech that mostly repeated his standard stump material, with many false or exaggerated claims. “The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
In private, advisers say, Trump spends much of his time meeting and talking with lawyers and worrying about various investigations, particularly the documents probe. Advisers say he keeps close tabs on who is testifying and asks a lot of questions about it.
His campaign advisers have tried to largely stay out of the legal fray, but many people on his campaign have now been subpoenaed, and stories about the investigations hover over meetings — and his brain. For example, two campaign advisers said a conference call about unrelated topics on Thursday afternoon was interrupted when he was indicted. Trump has more than a dozen lawyers in multiple states.
Trump continues to talk to Boris Epshteyn more than some other advisers wish he would, as Epshteyn had his phone taken by federal authorities and is believed by Trump advisers to be under investigation himself. Epshteyn was in court with Trump on Tuesday.
One adviser who has been in frequent touch with Trump, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions, said he was brooding and angry about the indictment throughout the weekend, even as he tried to put on a steely face for others, played golf and dined on the patio of his club. While other Trump advisers have noticed the outpouring of political support, the more than $8 million they say they raised since Thursday and the wall-to-wall news coverage as positive attributes, Trump has frequently bemoaned how unfair the process is and that he was dreading the trip to New York.
On Monday night, Trump huddled with his team of lawyers at Trump Tower. Chris Kise, one of his attorneys, described him as “resolute” and “determined.”
“When you say what his reaction was — what do you think his reaction was? He is frustrated and upset,” said Blanche. “But he said, ‘we’re going to fight it.’ He’s upset, but he’s motivated.”
Trump and his team spent much of the morning without knowing what they were facing — while advisers said on Monday night they believed there were 34 counts, they had not seen the details or the charges until just before he went into the courtroom, a person with direct knowledge of his legal team said.
After being driven from Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to the Lower Manhattan courthouse where he was fingerprinted — as news helicopters filmed his movements and cable news networks carried them live — he had little to say in public view. A man who as president had aides waiting to ease his every movement, at one point pushed his way through a door himself.
Inside the courtroom, Trump was seated between his lawyers. One showed him some papers. At another point, he looked around the room. When he stood, he adjusted his suit jacket.
His campaign has milked the indictment for all the fundraising it can — even sending out a pitch on Tuesday morning that it touted “the last email before my arrest.” They were also selling a “NOT GUILTY” fake mug shot photo on a T-shirt for $47, though no actual mug shot was taken. The pretend mug shot showed Trump’s height on the lineup as six-foot-five, an extra two inches.
Dawsey reported from Washington. Jackie Alemany, Dylan Wells and Shayna Jacobs in New York contributed to this report.