The former president campaigns on case

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WASHINGTON − Donald Trump’s supporters aren’t exactly flocking to New York City to protest his hush money trial, but that hasn’t stopped the former president from pursuing an unprecedented presidential campaign from the depths of a criminal trial.

In improvised campaign events, statements to reporters, television and radio interviews, and social media posts, Trump is almost as busy promoting his campaign as he is condemning the judge, the prosecutors, and the trial itself, as well as President Joe Biden and other critics.

Speaking with reporters before Tuesday’s session, Trump asked supporters in Pennsylvania – at least the ones watching online or on cable television – to vote in the state’s primary to send a message ahead of the general election in the fall: “Let them know that we’re coming on Nov. 5 … we’re coming big.”

While standing trial on charges of hiding hush money payments designed to improperly influence the 2016 campaign, Trump’s political appeals are aimed largely at a key group: Independents and moderate Republicans who say they may turn away from him if he is convicted.

“We’re going to end up doing so well,” Trump said during a staged campaign-like stop last week at a Harlem bodega.

Same tactics, different election

Long-time Trump watchers told USA TODAY the former president is using the same kinds of tactics he did after he was charged in four separate indictments last year, starting with the hush money charges in late March.

Trump has conducted quasi-campaign events to complain about the legal moves against him — and promote his presidential candidacy in spite of them — just as he did after four sets of indictments last year.

Those indictments, which also involve Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss to Biden in 2020 and his handling of classified documents, appeared to help Trump gain momentum in the Republican primary. But that phenomenon was mostly contained to conservative GOP voters.

Moderate Republicans and independent took the indictments seriously and expressed concern about his behavior — and they’re not likely to be swayed by Trump’s protests on the quasi-campaign trail.

“What was effective in the primary could hurt him in the general election,” said Democratic political strategist Doug Sosnik, who was a senior adviser for former President Bill Clinton.

“What Trump is doing will hurt him with swing voters,” her warned.

According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, some 13% of the people who have said they would vote for Trump would not do so if he is a convicted felon.

The poll also said that 24% of all Republicans surveyed wouldn’t vote for Trump if he is convicted, more than enough to make the difference in a general election.

“If Trump loses a quarter of his Republican base, that’s huge,” said Chris Jackson, a senior vice president with Ipsos Public Affairs. “Even if he just loses just 10% of his base, that’s huge.”

But Jackson added that Trump and Biden campaigns are punching in the dark about the trial’s impact on voters. No former president and no major party candidate has ever stood trial during an election year.

“This is all new territory for the country,” he said. “So no one knows how it will pan out.”

Trump’s hush money trial in New York could take another six-to-seven weeks before a verdict is reached, marathon proceedings that could move the needle for some voters as November’s general election draws closer. It’s unclear if Trump will also go on trial in 2024 in any of the other three criminal cases where he’s pleaded not guilty.

So far, the Trump-Biden political race is a dead heat. The Real Clear Politics average of polls gives Trump a lead of 0.2 percentage points, well within the margins of error in these surveys.

Campaign within a trial

While it’s not clear if Trump’s approach will resonate with voters, he did spend the first week of jury selection offering previews of his “campaign-within-a-trial.”

After the court session last Tuesday, Trump’s motorcade ferried him to the bodega in Harlem, where he spoke to reporters about Biden, crime, House Speaker Mike Johnson’s spending plans and made frequent complaints about the trial.

As he has since the first indictment, Trump without evidence blamed Biden and Democrats for his criminal charges and suggested his concern about the political impact by saying, “They want to keep me off the campaign trail.”

Trump also attacked the judge and prosecutors in the hush money case, to the point where Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is seeking sanctions against the ex-president for violating gag orders.

The former president has staged several campaign-within-a-trial events. Last week, for example, he met with Poland President Andrzej Duda. “We’re behind Poland all the way,” Trump told reporters as he greeted Duda’s arrival at Trump Tower.

Trump held another foreign policy huddle on Tuesday night at his Manhattan sky scraper with Taro Aso, the vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and the country’s former prime minister.

Some plans fell through

Not everything has gone to plan.

Small groups of demonstrators have occasionally gathered outside the Manhattan courthouse where Trump is on trial. Even they were overshadowed by a horrific event last Friday, when a man fatally set fire to himself in full view of news cameras stationed outside the proceedings.

Trump also planned a traditional airport rally Saturday in Wilmington, N.C. – a key swing state – but had to cancel it amid bad weather.

The event will likely be re-scheduled.

Looking ahead, the Trump campaign has already scheduled a May 11 rally in Wildwood, N.J., which is not terribly far from the trial site in New York.

During various chats with reporters, Trump has complained that he should be out campaigning in places like New Hampshire, Georgia, and North Carolina, but instead he has to sit in a courtroom. 

The Trump campaign maintained that same tone last Friday with a fundraising solicitation complaining he’s being “DRAGGED to court so often that I’m being taken off the campaign trail.” The blast sent out via text message urging supporters to give as much as $3,300 each.

‘Rally behind MAGA’

Trump is also encouraging people to come out in person on his behalf. So far, that isn’t working.

On his Truth Social account before opening arguments on Monday, Trump combined criticism of the Israel-Hamas protesters with a plea to his own followers to “GO OUT AND PEACEFULLY PROTEST” and “RALLY BEHIND MAGA.”

During Tuesday’s brief statement before trial testimony resumed, Trump lamented the relative lack of supporters at the courthouse. He appeared to blame it on a massive police presence, even as anti-Israel protesters flocked to the nearby campuses of Columbia and New York universities.

Video outside the courthouse showed a low-key police presence at best, with nothing to stop people from coming to the area.

Political critics are mocking Trump over the no-shows.

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said Trump is “just going crazy,” adding that: “His supporters are outnumbered by people that are holding up signs talking about porn stars and time in prison.”

Biden: Trump is ‘busy’ right now

Biden and his aides aren’t ignoring Trump’s trial. But they’re not saying much about it either, following the political dictum that you don’t interfere with an opponent who’s producing his own trouble.

They are instead making joking references about Trump’s tribulations.

In a speech to steel workers in Pittsburgh last week, Biden said at one point: “Under my predecessor, who is busy right now …”

The headline of a Biden campaign memo mocked Trump for “Stormy Abortion Ban Coverage,” a reference to a key witness in the trial: Former adult film star Stormy Daniels, who received hush money to buy her silence about her relationship with Trump just before the 2016 election.

On Tuesday, upon exiting the Manhattan courthouse after a day of witness testimony, Trump complained about the room temperature while also getting in a dig about how his time is no longer his alone: “They’re keeping me in a courtroom that’s freezing by the way.”

Trump and Biden are expected to continue campaigning around the former president’s trial: He’s facing three other criminal cases.

Those include cases in both Washington, D.C., and Georgia alleging a Trump-led conspiracy to steal the 2020 election from Biden. The fourth case, in Florida, involves Trump’s handling of classified documents after he left office.

But even if Biden continues to hit Trump over his criminal charges – and Trump continues to protest them — it may not make much difference among voters, looking to the leaders for answers on the challenges facing Americans instead.

Jackson said Trump may have to battle another kind of reaction by voters, one that may explain why so few protesters have shown up for him: Fatigue.

“The data suggests that Americans are kind of worn out,” Jackson said. “I think everybody is a little bit worn out.”


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