Donald Trump’s Very Good, Super Awesome, Unbelievable Day Getting Arrested

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Donald Trump on Tuesday once again made history, becoming the first U.S. President to face a federal criminal indictment. Even in such proximity to disgrace, it may have been—in Trump’s unique and narrow perspective—his best day since Election Day 2020.

Trump dominated the national conversation as he pleaded not guilty through an attorney to charges related to alleged mishandling of classified documents and obstruction of officials trying to fetch them back. Helicopter footage carried his pilgrimage to the federal courthouse in Miami and his egress to a quasi-surprise stop at a local Cuban restaurant, where he likened his political “persecution” to Latin American nations. “Food for everyone,” Trump declared on Calle Ocho—as if his take-out stop weren’t happening right after he was placed under arrest—before fleeing back to New Jersey. There, his plane’s arrival received breaking-news status as if it were Air Force One landing in Kabul. The news choppers overhead documented his motorcade’s return to his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. And, once there, a rally-like atmosphere greeted him for a campaign-style speech that brought forth his favorite Whataboutisms, $2 million in fundraising, and an impromptu singalong of Happy Birthday on the eve of his 77th.

It was as if it were a normal day of The Trump Show. The annoyance of the court appearance seemed like merely an irksome intermission to the wall-to-wall party energy that he feeds on.

The legal threats facing Trump are serious. Although he doesn’t face “400 years” of jail time as he has taken to telling audiences, he could face a stretch in the clink if he is convicted of the 37 counts listed in the federal indictment. While Trump hasn’t paid a political price for the alleged mishandling of presidential papers—including some of the nation’s most sensitive national security secrets—that doesn’t guarantee Republican primary voters won’t eventually get wise to the risks of nominating a figure who may have to detour from the campaign trail to attend a federal trial as a defendant. (He is also set to go to trial next year in a separate state case brought by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg over alleged falsification of business records in order to cover up hush money payments to a former porn star; those charges, brought in April, resulted in him becoming the first President to ever be criminally indicted, period. He has pleaded not guilty.) Trump’s poll numbers are, amazingly, up slightly. Partisans have rallied to his defense, parroting his talking points about an out-of-control justice system that is hounding him unfairly. But it’s also likely this piece of Trump’s legacy could take months to play out, and patience can grow thin and voices of support more feeble the longer it takes. Looming potential charges in Georgia and D.C. would only complicate matters.

If Trump understands any of this, that wasn’t apparent in his public performances on Tuesday. Don’t for a minute think that the set pieces weren’t choreographed by Trump, who has an eerie sense at all times of where the lighting is best, the cameras are prepositioned, and the audience is most receptive.

Trump sat silently during the 50-minute, unprecedented appearance Tuesday on the 13th floor of a federal courthouse in Miami, where a mostly pro-Trump crowd of more than 1,000 gathered outside with flags and MAGA hats. Trump kept his arms folded tightly over his chest during the hearing, played with a pen, and declined to swivel his head to see the reporters, supporters, and gawkers crammed into the room. He never seemed to make eye contact with Jack Smith, the special counsel who brought the charges. The ex-President was slow to rise when the judge wrapped up and appeared to the reporters in the room to be numb to the events that unfolded around him, seemingly indifferent to the very real peril he and his political future faced. It was classic Trump the Brooder.

But the former reality television star knows the narrative matters more than substance, at least in his orbit. Moments later, his motorcade climbed from the underground garage and ferried him to Versailles, the iconic Cuban outpost in Little Havana. Trump’s supporters had been tipped off, and there were cameras on hand to capture his smile and quick post-game debrief, as if it were an Apprentice confessional. Trump the Producer knew he couldn’t leave the motorcade as the only video the networks would loop during his flight back to Newark, N.J. Meanwhile, his biggest boosters on TV began spouting his defense: “There’s no dead bodies,” Fox’s Jesse Watters said in an attempt to dismiss the seriousness of Trump’s alleged crimes. In primetime on Fox, the graphic on the lower quarter of the screen carried the caption: “Wannabe Dictator Speaks at the White House After Having His Political Rival Arrested.” (A Fox News spokesperson said in a statement that “the chyron was taken down immediately and was addressed.”)

And once at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, the ex-President faced a crowd of fans on the steps of the brick clubhouse, where he lingered in the glow—of adoration and of iPhone camera screens alike—for a full two minutes and 18 seconds before he took to the podium in front of of the four-column portico that bore a passing resemblance to the White House in the tight camera shot. The campaign had scheduled the evening—the first major fundraiser of his 2024 bid for the White House, slated to pick up $2 million—before they knew the boss would have to be in Florida that day, but there were no serious talks of canceling it. If anything, the allure of seeing Trump the Rockstar on such a momentous day made it an even hotter ticket for deep-pocketed diehards. He leaned into grievance even as his allies feted his Wednesday birthday. ​​“Some birthday! We’ve got a government that’s out of control,” Trump said.

It would be tempting to fact-check Trump’s remarks that ricocheted off proven misleading statements about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Joe Biden’s papers, and Bill Clinton’s audio diaries. Others have done able jobs, but let’s just stipulate that much of it was false, misleading, and mean-spirited. Trump called the charges against him “fake and fabricated” from a hard-left activist-prosecutor.

Trump also amplified and mangled the latest allegations that there are audio recordings of members of the Biden family accepting Ukrainian bribes. Biden has called the accusations “malarkey” and it isn’t clear that anyone has actually heard these tapes; that has never stopped Trump. “This day will go down in infamy, and Joe Biden will forever be remembered as not only the most corrupt President in the history of our country, but perhaps even more importantly, the President who together with a band of his closest thugs, misfits, and Marxists tried to destroy American democracy,” Trump seethed. “But they will fail and we will win bigger and better than before.”

That unproven rhetoric has already become canon for Trump’s acolytes; even Trump’s rivals for the 2024 nomination have come to his defense, realizing so many Republicans are immune to new information about Trump that would dent their hagiographic worship of his movement. Trump is the Republican Party, and the Republican Party is Trumpism.

And yet…

Never before has someone with so much power seemed so weak. Trump bounced from excuse to excuse the way a teenager does when confronted with a story that is crumbling. First, he seemed to suggest the search of Mar-a-Lago in August was “staged by the FBI,” which then misrepresented what they found: “They put them there, took the picture, and released it illegally to the press.” Then Trump said he could do anything he wanted with his papers, as though official government documents were a tricycle he didn’t have to share. And then they weren’t even papers, but rather memorabilia like shoes and T-shirts and snapshots. And then… And then…

Trump’s survival has rested on his talent to distract his audiences and misdirect their attention. Trump is the David Blaine of American politics. But Three-card Monte only works when there is one trick. Trump seems to be enamored by a half-dozen sleights of narrative, and he seems to think the ever-changing story that worked in politics will find similar success in a courtroom. He may soon be disabused of this notion.

But Trump has uncanny luck, and he may survive the legal threats. Trump the Stage Manager has a preternatural ability to confuse facts and dodge accountability. But unlike his two impeachment trials—again, history-making—Trump cannot count on partisan allies in the Senate to dodge convictions. Unlike Senators, jurors don’t live in fear of Trump turning on them and ending their political careers. The audience is bigger than ever for Trump, but so are the risks. He just hasn’t quite recognized that a Nielsen number doesn’t inoculate against accountability. At least not always.

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