5 min read

Trump’s two courts

Surveying the political scene after Trump’s second arraignment.
Trump’s two courts
A courtroom sketch of Donald Trump’s arraignment on Tuesday. (Sketch by Bill Hennessy)
Good morning! It’s Wednesday, June 14, 2023. The 2024 elections are 510 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Today is Donald Trump’s 77th birthday. This week also marks the 8th anniversary of the gilded escalator ride that launched Trump into the white-hot center of our political universe.

It may be tiresome at this point to say it, but it bears repeating that in the eight years since, America has undergone two presidential impeachments, two presidential indictments, a global pandemic, and a riot at the U.S. Capitol — with one man, Trump, in the middle of all of it.

The second of those presidential indictments unfolded on Tuesday as Trump was arraigned in federal court in Miami for 37 charges of hoarding classified documents after leaving office and blocking the government’s efforts to retrieve them.

According to press reports, Trump sat quietly during the proceedings as his lawyer entered his plea for him: “Not guilty.” Jack Smith, the special counsel who indicted Trump, sat about 20 feet away, although the two men did not exchange words.

Trump was neither handcuffed nor asked to pose for a mugshot, although he was fingerprinted. He was released without having to pay bond; no limitations on his travel were set. He was ordered not to discuss the case with any witnesses, including his co-defendant and personal aide, Walt Nauta.  

Due to a court order, no cameras were allowed at the arraignment. But once it ended, Trump quickly seized the spotlight.

The former president went straight from his arraignment to Versailles, a famous Cuban cafe in Miami, where supporters sang “Happy Birthday” and joined him in prayer. (“Some birthday,” Trump joked.)

From there, he returned to his Bedminister golf club in New Jersey — where he allegedly showed off classified documents to visitors, according to the indictment — to deliver a bitter denunciation of the charges against him.

The charges against him were entirely avoidable had Trump simply returned the documents in his possession when he was asked to. But even last night, Trump continued to double down on the rightness of his stance: “I had every right to have these documents,” he declared.

Trump appears to be focusing most immediately on the political, not legal, fallout of the indictment, as evidenced by both his actions (holding events with supporters instead of plotting legal strategy behind the scenes) and his words (potentially hurting his case by continuing to discuss the indictment, in order to persuade voters he is innocent).

“Trump is determined to fight this battle in the court of public opinion instead of a courtroom for as long as possible,” Maggie Haberman of the New York Times tweeted on Tuesday. Eventually, though, it will not be voters he has to convince — it will be a jury of his peers. But Trump’s attention remains captivated by the political side of things, where he has increased control and finer instincts.

Of course, although the reverse is not true, a win on the political side would likely create a win on the legal side, as Trump could move to dismiss the federal charges if elected president, a possibility that raises the stakes of the 2024 election (at least for Trump) considerably.

Where, then, does the court of public opinion stand?

In the few polls released so far since the indictment, Trump continues to dominate the Republican presidential primary: he even reached 61% support in the GOP field in one post-indictment Morning Consult survey. When it comes to the general election, though, many of the same polls show that the charges do not have the same effect on independent voters as they do on Republicans.

An ABC/Ipsos poll found that 63% of independent voters believe the charges against Trump are serious, compared to 38% of Republicans and 91% of Democrats. A plurality of independents — 44% — said Trump should end his 2024 campaign now, compared to 37% who disagreed.

Polls largely tell the same story now that they did after his first indictment: the charges consolidate Republican support around Trump, but they could haunt him come November.

Trump’s own messaging could haunt him as well. As I have written, Trump’s political rhetoric has turned increasingly inward in his third presidential campaign — a trend that is not likely to reverse itself now that the campaign could be his best chance at avoiding imprisonment.

Trump’s speech on Tuesday was mostly focused on his own predicament — which he called “the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country” — rather than any public policy pronouncements.

To be clear, general election voters are not crazy about Joe Biden either. In the ABC/Ipsos poll, Trump and Biden share the same dismal favorability rating: 31%.

Biden is counting on split screens like Tuesday’s to put him over the top:

At right: Trump speaks at Bedminster about his indictment.

At left: Biden speaks at the White House at a concert marking Juneteenth.

While Trump seemingly wants to talk only about his legal troubles, Biden wants to talk about anything but.

“No,” Biden said on Tuesday when asked if he had a comment on Trump’s arraignment.

Per Axios, the Democratic National Committee has similarly urged Democratic lawmakers to avoid commenting on the indictment.

While statements from some Republican leaders have veered toward the apocalyptic, the top two Democrats in Congress called for Trump’s “supporters and critics alike to let this case proceed peacefully in court,” without weighing in on the specifics.  

In other words, even as events accelerate, both likely nominees are doubling down on the political styles that fueled their careers: Trumpian bombast versus Biden’s calm reserve.

More news you should know

Today’s political planner

President Biden will deliver remarks at a League of Conservation Voters dinner tonight.

The Senate will vote to confirm two U.S. district judge nominees.

The House will vote on the Save Our Gas Stoves Act, which would block the Energy Department from banning gas stoves, and the REINS Act, which would require congressional approve for executive branch regulations with an “annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more.”

The chamber may also vote on a resolution censuring Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) for his role in the Trump investigations.

The Supreme Court has nothing on its schedule.

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