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Monday, December 11, 2023

‘The Circus Continues’: For Trump, Legal Woes Resurrect Old Habits

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Donald J. Trump, the former prime-time reality TV star known for his love of big stages and vast crowds, has embraced a more humbling and traditional style on the campaign trail in recent months.

He held intimate events in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He fielded questions from voters in Iowa. And in multiple cities, he surprised diners with unannounced visits to restaurants where, with his more familiar Trumpian flair, he made a dramatic show of sliding a wad of cash from his pocket to buy everyone a bite to eat.

This strategy has highlighted the billionaire’s counterintuitive political strength at connecting with voters on a personal level — while also underscoring the chief weakness of his main potential Republican rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who can often come across as snappish or uncomfortable.

But now Mr. Trump faces a likely indictment in New York in the coming days, and how he responds to this moment could determine whether he continues to stabilize his standing as the Republican presidential front-runner or whether he further alienates the voters he will need to return to the White House.

The result will help answer a pressing question about his candidacy for many Republican primary voters: Can Mr. Trump show enough restraint to persuade moderate Republicans and independent swing voters to choose him over President Biden in 2024?

So far, he has returned to old habits.

Since Saturday, Mr. Trump has unleashed a series of personal, unproven and provocative attacks against investigators, Democrats and fellow Republicans. He accused Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney bringing the case against Mr. Trump, of being a “woke tyrant” who was “destroying Manhattan.” He called his Democratic opponents “animals and thugs.” He insinuated baselessly that Mr. DeSantis might be gay.

It was the kind of behavior that swing voters and moderate Republicans tend to dislike most about Mr. Trump: the long tail of chaos that often drags behind him; an inclination to focus on personal attacks instead of policy solutions; and his inability, particularly in 2020, to settle on a forward-looking message to explain his candidacy.

For three consecutive elections, these voters have largely abandoned Mr. Trump, as well as the candidates and causes he has endorsed. In 2020, he bled twice as much support among Republican voters as Mr. Biden did among Democratic ones, an outcome the former president will have to address in order to win in 2024.

“The circus continues,” former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican and a former federal prosecutor, said on Sunday on ABC. “He only profits and does well in chaos and turmoil, and so he wants to create the chaos and turmoil on his terms — he doesn’t want it on anybody else’s terms.”

“But, look, at the end, being indicted never helps anybody,” Mr. Christie continued. “It’s not a help.”

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Taylor Budowich, a Trump adviser who now runs the main super PAC supporting the former president’s White House bid, defended Mr. Trump’s approach, saying he was “campaigning harder than every other candidate combined, while staying focused on the issues voters care about.”

“This is allowing the contrast to be made,” said Mr. Budowich, whose group filed a complaint last week accusing Mr. DeSantis of breaking state ethics law. “Donald Trump is the true fighter for the people, while every other candidate is different versions of the same.”

Some Trump allies believe that becoming the first former president to face criminal charges would carry a political upside for Mr. Trump, at least in a Republican primary. The former president has skillfully persuaded many supporters to metabolize critiques from opponents, investigations by law enforcement and impeachments by Congress as deeply personal attacks on them.

Mr. Trump has started to amplify the anger and the energy of his most ardent followers as he tries to fight his legal battle on a political playing field.

His muscular online fund-raising machine has started leveraging the potential indictment in appeals for campaign contributions, returning to a well-worn page in his campaign playbook. Mr. Trump and his team turned his first impeachment into tens of millions of dollars, and collected similar amounts as he made false claims of a stolen 2020 election. Last year, his two single biggest fund-raising days came after the F.B.I. searched his South Florida home for missing government documents.

But whether Mr. Trump’s attempt to galvanize his base is worth the political cost that he may pay in a general election is far from certain.

The first signs of regression appeared early Saturday, when Mr. Trump surprised his campaign aides with a social media post that declared he would be arrested on Tuesday. (A spokesman later clarified that Mr. Trump did not have direct knowledge of the timing of any arrest.)

On Sunday, he resurfaced his lies about the 2020 election, which had recently started to fade from his public speeches. But as a reminder that Mr. Trump still hasn’t turned the page, he injected false claims of election fraud into a social media post complaining about the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

On Monday, he hurled a crude joke at Mr. DeSantis after the Florida governor broke his silence about the potential indictment, criticizing it as politically motivated but drawing attention to Mr. Trump’s sordid behavior at the center of the case, which revolves around hush-money payments to a porn star who said she had an affair with the former president.

Whether three consecutive days of escalation was a temporary or lasting step away from the relative discipline that defined his last few months of campaigning remained to be seen.

But at the very least, it signaled a long week ahead. On Saturday in Waco, Texas, Mr. Trump is set to host the first large event of his 2024 campaign, returning to his cherished rally stage — where he is often at his most reckless.

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