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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump, quoting Putin, declares indictments ‘politically motivated persecution’

Former President Donald Trump appears during a campaign event in Durham, N.H. on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Maggie Haberman and Michael Gold

Former President Donald Trump on Saturday invoked Vladimir Putin to support his case that the four criminal indictments he is facing are political payback, quoting the Russian president saying that the charges undercut the argument that the United States is an example of democracy for the world.

Trump made the comment during a campaign speech in Durham, New Hampshire in which he focused on pocketbook concerns of voters, hammered the state’s Republican governor, who endorsed one of his rivals, mocked his lower-polling competitors for not performing better and painted a dystopian vision of a country in “hell” under his successor, President Joe Biden.

“Even Vladimir Putin says that Biden’s — and this is a quote — politically motivated persecution of his political rival is very good for Russia, because it shows the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach others about democracy,” Trump said as he railed against the 91 criminal charges he is facing, citing Putin speaking in September.

Trump added: “So, you know, we talk about democracy, but the whole world is watching the persecution of a political opponent that’s kicking his ass. It’s an amazing thing. And they’re all laughing at us.”

There is no evidence that Biden has meddled in the prosecutions of Trump, which are taking place in four different federal and state courts and cover a range of issues, including his possession of reams of classified material after he left office and his efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.

And Biden’s Justice Department has twice indicted Biden’s son, Hunter, on gun possession and tax charges. But Trump has continued to claim, without evidence, that all prosecutors — even the state prosecutors in New York and Georgia — are doing his successor’s bidding.

Trump’s citation of Putin, an authoritarian strongman, came as critics have raised alarms about his potentially radical plans for a second term, and as Trump’s campaign has tried to muddy the waters over voter concerns about his efforts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power and the criminal charges he faces related to them.

Still, Trump has proved less than willing to pull back his own rhetoric, even as aides have tried to quell a crush of news stories about his second-term plans. Last week, Trump said he would be a dictator “on day one” of his presidency, a remark he called a joke but later doubled down on.

In bringing Putin’s words to his defense, Trump referred to one of Biden’s top adversaries as a credible observer of the U.S. political system. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russian officials interfered in the 2016 election and have repeatedly tried to destabilize U.S. elections.

But suggesting that the United States is not much better than authoritarian countries, and positively invoking Putin, has been a recurring theme for Trump since he took office in 2017.

At the rally Saturday, a relatively new slogan for his campaign — “Better Off With Trump” — was displayed on a screen over Trump’s head as he stood onstage before a packed crowd at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. In his speech, Trump criticized Biden’s economic policies, and then broadly said the president had contributed to the degradation of Americans’ everyday lives.

“We’re going to bring our country back from hell. It’s in hell,” Trump said. He cited statistics like mortgage rates and attacked Biden’s energy policies. He also revived a widely condemned comment about immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country,” noting that immigrants are coming not just from South America but also Africa and Asia. He did not mention Europe.

Trump also cast his primary competitors, all of whom are trailing him significantly in state and national polls, as “backstabbing establishment losers and the sellouts lagging far behind us,” and he called them “insincere RINOs” — Republicans in name only.

The former president spent considerable time ridiculing Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, over a much-vaunted “surge” that he said only manifested in comparison with lower-polling candidates. Although she is currently the highest-polling alternative to Trump in New Hampshire, edging out Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, surveys have consistently shown Trump with a double-digit lead in the state.

Haley was endorsed this past week by New Hampshire’s popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu, a Trump critic whose support Haley’s team hopes will help attract more moderate Republicans and independent voters, who are allowed to participate in New Hampshire’s primary. Those voters are also being courted by other candidates, including former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Saturday’s rally was Trump’s first event in New Hampshire in more than a month. The former president, who has kept a lighter campaign schedule than most of his competitors, has spent more time recently in Iowa, where his campaign is seeking a dominant victory that could encourage his rivals to drop out of the race.

His advisers see his path in New Hampshire as more predictable. The state gave him a decisive first primary victory in his effort to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.

Trump was to travel to Nevada, the third nominating state, later Saturday to watch a UFC fight in Las Vegas, and then for a rally in Reno on Sunday. He returns to Iowa for an event Tuesday.

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