Whatever attributes Donald Trump may have, a reputation for keeping calm is not something he carries with him. This week, hours after he made a new entry in the book of firsts for an American president when he was charged with 34 felony counts, he returned to the arms of his supporters at his Florida estate.
The 76-year-old had been warned by the judge in New York that he should ease up on language that could add fuel to a fraught situation. Not only did Trump utterly ignore him, launching into a hard-edged assault on prosecutor Alvin Bragg and claim he was once again the victim of attacks. The former president also denounced the judge himself, claiming that he and his entire family were “Trump hating”.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” he protested. “The only crime I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.” The crowd roared back and cheered.
The political career of Donald Trump has several times taken the United States to moments when it felt it was staring over a precipice. This is one of them. Many fear for America’s future. Before he was elected, back in 2015 when he swept down the golden escalators at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, one wondered where the country was heading.
After he bagged the Republican Party nomination, never really losing momentum from those first smash-up-everything months, people asked, is this really happening?
Many in the political establishment wrote him off, in a manner not dissimilar to the way a swathe of Britain was stunned when the “Leave” side won the Brexit vote. Before they knew it, Trump was accepting a phone call of concession from Hillary Clinton and moving into the White House.
After he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, many again wrote off the twice-impeached Trump. The violence that erupted at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 jolted the world. But Biden found his feet, handling the Covid pandemic in a pretty efficient manner.
The Democrats’ better than expected performance in the 2022 midterms was seen by some as confirmation Trump was a waning force. Many of the high-profile candidates Trump championed were handily beaten, and the narrative of the night was that election-deniers had lost across the country.
People took it as a sign that the former president’s hold on the GOP was finally loosening, and Republican voters became excited about the prospect of voting for candidates such as Ron DeSantis, the youthful governor of Florida, who appeared to offer a similar Make America Great Again (Maga) outlook, but combined with a degree from Yale. But now Trump is back. And his battery has been super-charged.
Trump actually announced his third bid for the White House last November, in a rather lacklustre speech at Mar-a-Lago. Many questioned whether he had what it took to overcome history; only one previous president, Grover Cleveland all the way back in 1888, had won a second non-consecutive term.
Plenty of commentators wondered if his heart was really in it. In campaign events that followed, Trump appeared fixated on relitigating the 2020 contest, refighting old battles rather than offering up something new. His crowds were often modest and the campaign struggled to raise funds.
Curiously enough, Trump’s new lease of life has come courtesy of a Democratic prosecutor in New York City, also digging into old matters. Many assumed the controversy over Trump’s alleged hush money payments to a former porn actress, Stormy Daniels, all the way back in 2016 was old business.
His former lawyer, Michael Cohen, had pleaded guilty to charges relating to making those payments and served time in jail. But nobody appeared to be going after Trump. When the Manhattan district attorney announced in January he empanelled a grand jury to look again at the evidence, few thought much of it.
Yet two weeks ago, Bragg announced that grand jury had voted to indict Trump on criminal charges. It was unprecedented. No president had ever before been thus charged. Many defended Bragg’s actions and said nobody should be beyond the law. But one consequence was to offer a massive boost to Trump.
Potential rivals such as DeSantis and Nikki Haley had to publicly denounce the charges, if they did not want to anger Trump’s hardcore supporters. Trump’s numbers shot up. One poll saw his lead over DeSantis leap 26 points. His campaign sent out fundraising emails saying Democrats were trying to stop their man. Millions of dollars poured in.
Trump had called on his supporters to take to the streets to protest. That largely did not happen, as many appeared to fear they were being set up by the authorities to be arrested. But if any one of his rivals thought the charges against Trump would undermine his campaign, this week they got their answer.
While the former president looked grim and sombre for the hour or so he sat in the 15th floor courtroom of Justice Juan Merchan where he said “not guilty” when the charges were read to him, that demeanour did not last long.
But Lisa Gilbert, vice president of Public Citizen, a watchdog group, said Trump’s arraignment showed the justice system could work, no matter the former president’s efforts to dismiss the charges. People looking for a change in Trump’s manner, she says, would wait a long time.
“One of the worst legacies of the Trump presidency is his sense of entitlement, that he could skirt the law and do things no one else would be allowed to do,” she says from Washington DC. “That’s something to avoid going forward.”
- A Tell report