For a brief moment when Donald Trump glided through the crowd at Mar-a-Lago and ascended to a podium flanked by American flags before a cheering crowd, it seemed like the beginning of a successful campaign event. But almost as soon as he started to speak, the former President threw himself a pity party.
Trump called his indictment on 34 felony charges related to alleged hush-money payments to a former porn star a “massive election interference at a scale never seen before in our country.” He attacked Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and painted himself as the victim of a vast conspiracy. “The only crime that I’ve committed,” he said, “is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
From there, his speech—the first public response to the historic arraignment earlier Tuesday—devolved into a litany of lies about the 2020 election. Cable news channels cut the feed. Applause grew thinner and thinner.
Trump has been delivering versions of this gripefest for years now, a diatribe that has grown more and more bitter over the course of two impeachments, an insurrection, and countless other scandals that critics claimed would derail his political career. How much appetite does the American public have for a presidential candidate determined to litigate old grievances as new legal challenges loom?
So far, the indictment appears to have rallied Republicans around the former President. The GOP’s dwindling number of Trump critics, like Sen. Mitt Romney, trashed the case brought by Bragg. “I believe the New York prosecutor has stretched to reach felony criminal charges in order to fit a political agenda,” Romney said. Even his 2024 rivals mostly leapt to his defense.
Polling shows that the indictment may have given Trump a boost with voters as well. A Yahoo! News-YouGov poll taken immediately after the indictment found a surge in support for Trump, with 57% of respondents saying they would vote for the former President over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his perceived top rival, who drew 31%. As recently as February, DeSantis led Trump in a head-to-head matchup in the same poll. In the new survey, Trump held leads among independents, Evangelical Christians, and voters of all ages and education levels.
Another poll released April 3 by Reuters/Ipsos also found that Trump had widened his lead since the indictment, with 48% of Republicans saying they want Trump as their nominee, up from 44% earlier in March. Support for DeSantis dropped to 19% in the wake of the charges, down from 30% in March.
While the unsealing of the grand jury indictment on Tuesday was the clearest indication of the evidence Manhattan prosecutors intend to present against Trump, it appears to have little chance of persuading GOP primary voters that his behavior is politically disqualifying. A CNN poll released on the eve of the arraignment found that most Republicans don’t believe what Trump did was illegal—and a significant minority don’t even believe it was wrong.
More than 1 in 5 Republicans say that Trump’s alleged crimes of falsifying business records to hide hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels in the weeks before the 2016 election to cover up an alleged affair (which Trump has denied)—were “not wrong at all,” according to the CNN poll. Another 50% of Republicans said the payments were unethical but not illegal, the poll found, while only 8% said he did anything illegal.
Trump’s speech after the arraignment, like most of his public comments, was designed to animate his base. He knows the more he’s attacked, the more loyal they become. “This witch hunt, like all the others, will only BACKFIRE on Biden!” Trump said in a statement published shortly before his speech. “How fitting that I should return home to be LEADING in the polls!”
But Trump’s base isn’t getting bigger. And Americans overall seem to support the indictment, according to the CNN poll, with 60% approving of the decision to indict Trump, including a significant majority of Independent voters and majorities across age, gender, race, and education. At the same time, the survey found that a majority of Americans think the indictment is a political maneuver, with 76% saying that politics played a role. The respondents were effectively split on whether they thought the indictment was good or bad for democracy.
Which may make the unprecedented case another tired Trumpian Rorcharch test: a scandal that is disqualifying only to the people who had already disqualified Trump, but energizing for the people who see him as the leader of the Republican Party. His indictment—and even, perhaps, a potential conviction down the line—might be yet another scandal that ends in a stalemate.