‘This is the final battle’: Trump casts his campaign as an existential fight against his critics
By Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Nehamas
Former President Donald Trump on Saturday cast both his indictments by prosecutors and his bid for the White House as part of a “final battle” with “corrupt” forces that he maintained are destroying the country.
The apocalyptic language came in Trump’s first public appearance since the 38-count federal indictment against him and a personal aide was unsealed — and in a state where he may soon face additional charges for his efforts to pressure Georgia election officials to overturn his 2020 election loss there. It was Trump’s second indictment in less than three months.
“This is the final battle,” Trump said in the speech to several thousand activists, delegates and members of the media who gathered in Columbus at a brick building that was once an ironworks that manufactured mortars, guns and cannons for the Confederate Army in the Civil War.
Trump spoke about the threats to the nation. But his escalating language also showed something more fundamental was in increasing jeopardy: his own freedom.
“Either the communists win and destroy America, or we destroy the communists,” the former president said in Georgia, seeming to refer to Democrats. He made similar remarks about the “deep state,” using the pejorative term he uses for U.S. intelligence agencies and more broadly for any federal government bureaucrat he perceives as a political opponent. He railed against “globalists,” “warmongers” in government and “the sick political class that hates our country.”
Trump also described the Justice Department as “a sick nest of people that needs to be cleaned out immediately,” calling the special counsel, Jack Smith, “deranged” and “openly a Trump hater.”
And he attacked by name Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, who is weighing criminal charges against Trump, calling her “a lunatic Marxist” and accusing her of ignoring violent crime and instead spending all of her time “working on getting Trump.”
Trump leavened an at times menacing speech with humor, declaring at one point, “Every time I fly over a blue state I get a subpoena.”
The crowd cheered and laughed throughout, and when he mentioned Democrats, the hall was filled with boos and jeers. At one mention of Hillary Clinton, a woman started chanting, “Lock her up!”
Trump’s speech at the Georgia state GOP convention and another later in the evening at the state party convention in North Carolina were planned before he was indicted Thursday for his role in mishandling classified documents. But the appearances were quickly incorporated into an extensive public attack, in which he equated prosecutors with his political enemies and urged his followers to see his indictments as attacks on them.
“In the end, they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way,” Trump said in Greensboro, North Carolina, Saturday evening. “The baseless indictment of me by the Biden administration’s weaponized Department of In-Justice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country.”
While many politicians might have considered pausing a presidential campaign after absorbing a devastating indictment and facing the prospect of prison time, Trump has always viewed his political candidacy and mass following as his best defense against his legal troubles.
On Saturday, in an interview with Politico, the former president went so far as to say he would stay in the race even if he were to be convicted in federal court. “I’ll never leave,” he vowed. (It’s not clear that the case would be resolved before the 2024 election.)
Trump and his advisers are keenly aware that the Republican base overwhelmingly supports him in his legal battles and reflexively dismisses whatever facts prosecutors produce. The Trump campaign team has exploited that dynamic and put their opponents in the presidential primary in a lose-lose situation: Either they begrudgingly defend and praise the front-runner or they suffer the wrath of millions of voters.
The Columbus convention crowd that Trump addressed was beyond friendly: It was devotional. While this was ostensibly a convention for the Republican Party of Georgia, a casual observer might be forgiven for thinking it was the Trump Party of Georgia.
Trump’s name, slogans and lies about the 2020 election were proudly displayed by party activists. Women wore bejeweled Trump caps. Men wore caps reading “God, Guns and Trump.” References to the 2020 election were everywhere: T-shirts read “Trump won,” and plastered on delegates’ chests and backs were stickers bashing voting machines.
In the unsealed indictment, federal prosecutors revealed for the first time how Trump had remained in possession of some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets, showing them off to visitors. The papers Trump kept included plans for retaliating to a foreign attack and details of American nuclear programs, according to the indictment. One image displayed boxes stacked next to a toilet in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom.
“Secret,” he bragged in a taped conversation, according to the indictment. “This is secret information. Look, look at this.”
Trump was joined on his private plane Saturday by a small group of his closest advisers, including his core political aides. He was also joined by Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right congresswoman from Georgia, and by Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Several people close to Trump and his team privately acknowledged the facts in the case were damaging. But they were uncertain that the charges would have any more impact on Republican voters than a number of other scandals that did little to change public opinion.
While many leading Republicans snapped in line behind Trump the moment he revealed that he was being indicted Thursday, party strategists have concerns about how the charges will shape any potential general election matchup with President Joe Biden.
The last two midterm elections and Trump’s own 2020 loss show that his combative approach to politics — and the accumulation of allegations against him, including his indictment in April by a Manhattan grand jury — has turned off independent and swing voters.