By BILL BARROW
ATLANTA (AP) — Former President Donald Trump will make his first public appearances since his federal indictment, speaking on Saturday to friendly Republican audiences in Georgia and North Carolina as he seeks to rally supporters to his defense.
Trump, who remains the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination despite his mounting legal woes, is expected to use his scheduled speeches at state party conventions in the two states to deliver a full-throated rebuke of the charges and amplify his assertions that he is the victim of a politically motivated “witch hunt” by Democratic President Joe Biden’s Justice Department.
His appearances will come a day after the unsealing of an indictment charging him with 37 felony counts in connection with his hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. The indictment accuses the former president of willfully defying Justice Department demands to return classified documents, enlisting aides in his efforts to hide the records and even telling his lawyers that he wanted to defy a subpoena for the materials stored at his estate. The indictment includes allegations that he stored documents in a ballroom and bathroom at his resort, among other places.
The most serious charges against him carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years each, but first-time offenders rarely get anywhere near the maximum sentence and the decision would ultimately be up to the judge.
For all that, Trump can expect a hero’s welcome this weekend as he rallies his fiercest partisans and seeks to cement his status as Republicans’ leading 2024 presidential candidate.
“Trump is a fighter, and the kinds of people that attend these conventions love a fighter,” said Jack Kingston, a former Georgia congressman who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020.
With former Vice President Mike Pence also slated to address North Carolina Republicans, Saturday will be the first time the former running mates have appeared at the same venue since Pence announced his campaign against his old boss.
For his part, Trump has insisted he committed no wrongdoing, saying, “There was no crime, except for what the DOJ and FBI have been doing against me for years.”
The indictment arrives at a time when Trump is continuing to dominate the Republican presidential primary. Other GOP candidates have largely attacked the Justice Department — rather than Trump — for the investigation, although the indictment’s breadth of allegations and scope could make it harder for Republicans to rail against than an earlier New York criminal case that many legal analysts had derided as weak.
A Trump campaign official described the former president’s mood as “defiant” Friday ahead of his trip. But aides were notably more reserved after the indictment’s unsealing as they reckoned with the gravity of the legal charges and the threat they pose to Trump beyond the potential short-term political gain.
The federal charging document alleges that Trump not only intentionally possessed classified documents but also boastfully showed them off to visitors and aides. The indictment is built on Trump’s own words and actions as recounted to prosecutors by lawyers, close aides and other witnesses, including his professing to respect and know procedures related to the handling of classified information.
The indictment includes 37 counts — 31 of which pertain to the willful retention of national defense information, with the balance relating to alleged conspiracy, obstruction and false statements — that, taken together, could result in a yearslong prison sentence.
Trump is due to make his first federal court appearance Tuesday in Miami. He was charged alongside Walt Nauta, a personal aide whom prosecutors say moved boxes from a storage room to Trump’s residence for him to review and later lied to investigators about the movement. A photograph included in the indictment shows several dozen file boxes stacked in a storage area.
The case adds to deepening legal jeopardy for Trump, who has already been indicted in New York in a hush money scheme and faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to criminal charges. But among the various investigations he has faced, the Mar-a-Lago probe has long been considered the most perilous threat and the one most ripe for prosecution. Campaign aides had been bracing for the fallout since Trump’s attorneys were notified that he was the target of the investigation, assuming it was not a matter of if charges would be brought, but when.
Trump’s continued popularity among Republican voters is evident in how gingerly his primary rivals have treated the federal indictment, which comes less than three months after he was charged in New York in a hush-money scheme stemming from payouts made to a porn actor during his 2016 campaign.
Pence, campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday, said he was “deeply troubled” that Trump had been federally indicted because he believes it will further divide the nation.
Pence urged his audience to pray for Trump, his family and all Americans, and promised to uphold the rule of law and “clean house at the highest level” of the Department of Justice, if elected.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s leading GOP rival, unabashedly echoed the former president, decrying the “weaponization of federal law enforcement” and “an uneven application of the law.” Without offering any specific allegation, DeSantis took aim at two favorite Republican targets — Hillary Clinton and Biden’s son, Hunter — and suggested they have escaped federal accountability because of such “political bias.”
During his own remarks at the North Carolina GOP convention on Friday night, DeSantis didn’t mention Trump by name but again made the comparison to Clinton.
“Is there a different standard for a Democratic secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” DeSantis asked. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country. … At the end of the day, we will once and for all end the weaponization of government under my administration.”
Among the declared Republican contenders, only Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson had explicitly called for Trump to end his comeback bid.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Meg Kinnard and Hannah Schoenbaum in Greensboro, N.C.; Eric Tucker in Washington; Thomas Beaumont in Marshalltown, Iowa; and Holly Ramer in Derry, N.H., contributed to this report.