COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump on Saturday is set to make his first public appearances since his federal indictment, speaking to friendly Republican audiences in Georgia and North Carolina as he tries to rally supporters to his defense.
Trump, who remains the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination despite his mounting legal woes, is expected to use speeches at two state party conventions to rail against the charges and amplify his assertions that he is the victim of a politically motivated “witch hunt” by Democratic President Joe Biden’s Justice Department.
The indictment unsealed Friday charged him with 37 felony counts in connection with his hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump is accused of willfully defying Justice Department demands to return classified documents, enlisting aides in his efforts to hide the records and even telling his lawyers that he wanted to defy a subpoena for the materials stored at his residence. The indictment includes allegations that he stored documents in a ballroom and bathroom at his resort, among other places.
The most serious charges carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years each, but first-time offenders rarely get anywhere near the maximum sentence and the decision would ultimately be up to the judge.
For all that, Trump can expect a hero’s welcome this weekend as he rallies his fiercest partisans and aims to cement his status as his party’s leading presidential candidate.
“Trump is a fighter, and the kinds of people that attend these conventions love a fighter,” said Jack Kingston, a former Georgia congressman who supported Trump’s White House campaigns in 2016 and 2020.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also plans to address North Carolina Republicans, making it the first time that he and his former boss would have appeared at the same venue since Pence announced his own campaign this past week.
Trump has insisted he committed no wrongdoing, saying, “There was no crime, except for what the DOJ and FBI have been doing against me for years.”
The indictment arrives at a time when Trump is continuing to dominate the primary race. Other candidates have largely attacked the Justice Department — rather than Trump — for the investigation. But the indictment’s breadth of allegations and scope could make it harder for Republicans to rail against these charges compared with an earlier New York criminal case that many legal analysts had derided as weak.
A Trump campaign official described the former president’s mood as “defiant” before the state visits. But aides were notably more reserved after the indictment’s unsealing as they reckoned with the gravity of the legal charges and the threat they pose to Trump beyond the potential short-term political gain.
The federal charging document alleges that Trump not only intentionally possessed classified documents but also boastfully showed them off to visitors and aides. The indictment is built on Trump’s own words and actions as recounted to prosecutors by lawyers, close aides and other witnesses, including his professing to respect and know procedures related to the handling of classified information.
The indictment includes 37 counts, 31 of which pertain to the willful retention of national defense information, with the balance relating to alleged conspiracy, obstruction and false statements. It could result in a yearslong prison sentence.
Trump is due to make his first federal court appearance Tuesday in Miami. He was charged alongside Walt Nauta, a personal aide whom prosecutors say moved boxes from a storage room to Trump’s residence for him to review and later lied to investigators about the movement. A photograph included in the indictment shows several dozen file boxes stacked in a storage area.
The case adds to deepening legal jeopardy for Trump. In March, he was indicted in New York in a hush money scheme stemming from payouts made to a porn actor during his 2016 campaign, and he faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to criminal charges.
But among the various investigations he has faced, the documents case has long been considered the most perilous threat and the one most ripe for prosecution.
Trump’s continued popularity among Republican voters is evident in how gingerly his primary rivals have treated the federal indictment.
Pence, campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday, said he was “deeply troubled” that Trump had been federally indicted because he believes it will further divide the nation. Pence urged his audience to pray for Trump, his family and all Americans, and promised that if he were elected president, he would uphold the rule of law and “clean house at the highest level” of the Department of Justice.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s leading GOP rival, decried the “weaponization of federal law enforcement” and “an uneven application of the law.” Without offering any specific allegation, DeSantis took aim at two favorite Republican targets — Hillary Clinton and Biden’s son, Hunter — and suggested they have escaped federal accountability because of such “political bias.”
In remarks at the North Carolina GOP convention on Friday night, DeSantis didn’t mention Trump by name but again made the comparison to Clinton.
“Is there a different standard for a Democratic secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” DeSantis asked. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country. … At the end of the day, we will once and for all end the weaponization of government under my administration.”
Kari Lake, a Trump loyalist who lost the governor’s race in Arizona last year, used her speech to Georgia Republicans on Friday night to repeat Trump’s false claims of a rigged 2020 election and she suggested that the indictment was another way to deny him the presidency.
“He’s doing so well in the polls that they decided they can’t stop him. So what do they do? They indict him on completely bogus charges,” Lake said. “The illegitimate Biden administration wants to lock our beloved President Trump for more than 200 years. Wow.”
Among the declared Republican contenders, only Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson had explicitly called for Trump to end his candidacy. Hutchinson did not mention Trump in remarks at a Georgia convention breakfast Saturday, but told reporters afterward that the Republican Party “should not lose its soul” in defending Trump and said the evidence so far suggested that he treated national secrets “like entertainment tools.”