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‘We are getting pretty good at this’: Trump and aides plot indictment response

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the DoubleTree Manchester Downtown on April 27 in Manchester, N.H.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Former president Donald Trump was ready Thursday night when he got the call saying he had been indicted by the Justice Department.

He had already shot a defiant video, in front of a mustache-twirling print of Teddy Roosevelt's portrait, denouncing charges that had not yet been filed against him. His team had pushed out an ad that tarred special counsel Jack Smith "as a tainted radical-left prosecutor" deployed by a "pack of rabid wolves."

He dictated a Truth Social post within minutes at his Bedminster Club in New Jersey, and his team began pushing out premade content and reposting the chorus of Republican leaders coming to his defense by attacking federal prosecutors.

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On the patio, he put on a playlist of favored classics (Elvis, Luciano Pavarotti); took calls from his most loyal allies; and chatted with lawyers, the televangelist Paula White-Cain and her husband, Jonathan Cain, the former keyboardist of the rock band Journey, according to people familiar with the events. By Friday morning, he was on the golf course before the indictment was unsealed, advisers said.

"We are getting pretty good at this," said one adviser close to Trump, who like others for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations or campaign strategy.

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But those first hours proved to be the easy part, one of the last moments in an unprecedented legal drama that gave him full control over his own fate. By midday Friday, the order had begun to slip away. His legal team had crumbled and supporters of his 2024 rivals inside the party started to express optimism that this time would be different from the April indictment he had received from a New York prosecutor in connection with hush money he allegedly paid to an adult-film star.

"Those in the 2024 field jump out and rush to defend Trump because they thought it would be similar to the Alvin Bragg case," said Sarah Matthews, a Republican and former Trump White House aide, referring to the Manhattan district attorney in the hush money case. "They made a mistake - now that we're seeing the details of this. It's highly detailed. And it's a pretty cut and dried case."

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The indictment unsealed on Friday rattled some of his advisers, who were not aware of the granular evidence obtained by the Justice Department, according to people familiar with the matter. Two people said the evidence was more damning than they expected, and could have been avoided if Trump would have just listened to his lawyers and advisers.

Two of his lawyers quit Friday morning before the indictment was unsealed amid fights with others on the legal team, leaving Trump with a late scramble to search for new counsel. And multiple people close to Trump are scheduled to testify in upcoming weeks as part of the special counsel's separate investigation into Trump's role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

In contrast to Thursday, Trump was said to be angry Friday at the details contained in the document and was planning a slashing speech in Georgia on Saturday while "running for his freedom," in the words of one close adviser. A different adviser said Trump would likely play up a narrative that he was a victim, asking supporters to rally around him as he takes on the FBI and the Justice Department, and criticizes the agencies in scathing terms for its lack of prosecution of President Biden's son, Hunter, who is under federal investigation for allegations of tax evasion and lying in the purchase of a gun.

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One adviser predicted a "ton of money" would be raised for Trump from the prospect of federal prosecutors seeking to potentially imprison him for decades. The goal from Trump's campaign, this person said, is to harden his political support among his base in upcoming weeks. The campaign declined to say how much money they had raised so far, but campaign advisers said they expected millions this weekend.

"We are going to fight like hell, and we're going to hang it on Joe Biden every day that he did this," Chris LaCivita, a top Trump adviser said.

But while the case internally is viewed as a rallying cry politically, it is also viewed as perilous in a legal sense - and driven by unforced errors and stubbornness, according to four advisers. "The story of this will be we didn't have to get to this place. None of this really had to happen. It was all so, so dumb," one person close to Trump said.

The limits of support he was receiving from his adversaries in the Republican field also became more clear as the day progressed. On Thursday night, Trump's team took solace that most of his Republican rivals for the nomination responded to the news with public statements denouncing what they described as the political weaponization of federal prosecutors.

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But the same candidates were notably silent on the substance or seriousness of the charges against him, which include allegations that he knowingly mishandled highly classified documents detailing U.S. military plans to attack other nations and the military capabilities of foreign states - among the most sensitive classified records in the government.

In another bad sign for Trump, most of Trump's rivals have yet to embrace the idea of vowing to pardon Trump if they are elected, a position embraced only by businessman candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who is polling in the single digits.

"The pardon power of the president should not be used to pander and it is not for sale," former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement, after calling on Trump to suspend his campaign until the indictment is resolved in his favor. "To even think about using the pardon power in the case of Donald Trump before the facts are known is an insult to the constitution and to the presidency."

Former vice president Mike Pence, who has testified before a grand jury in an investigation into Trump's role in attempts to obstruct the transfer of power after the 2020 election, said it was "premature" to discuss the possibility of a campaign suspension.

"I am not going to speak to hypotheticals," he said. "I think the former president has a right to make his defense."

The presidential campaigns of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) also declined to answer questions Friday about a possible pardon for Trump. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at a New Hampshire event that he "can't imagine pardoning" someone who in public life who "has gotten a full and fair trial in front of a jury of their peers."

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Unlike past moments of legal peril, Trump now finds himself facing potential prison sentences at the very moment that a growing field of political rivals step up their attacks on him. The charges are far more explosive than the charges brought against him April by a New York prosecutor for business record violations related to hush money payments for an extramarital affair.

"If you were trying to design a lawsuit that was easy for Republicans to dismiss as a partisan witch hunt, you would produce exactly the lawsuit that Alvin Bragg brought," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "Jack Smith is not a jokester."

Despite the initial public statements, strategists for multiple campaigns have already begun to speak privately about the possibility that Trump's federal legal challenges could reset the Republican nomination battle, which Trump has dominated so far this year. They see a clear opening developing over the coming months to use the indictment in a way that reminds Republican voters of their concerns about his judgment and competence.

A Republican consultant who is a longtime supporter of DeSantis called the federal case another example of Trump "stepping on one rake after another."

"The ironic thing about Trump's messaging all along is that he can take on the establishment, drain the swamp and get rid of the deep state," the consultant said. "Not sure how he expects to take on the swamp and the deep state if he continually becomes a victim of the deep state."

DeSantis himself echoed this line of attack in an interview before the indictment was released. "If the former president says he can slay the deep state in six months, my question to him would be, well, you already had four years - why didn't you slay it then?" DeSantis said.

But DeSantis and other Republican rivals are walking a delicate line, trying to sympathize with those voters who see Trump as a victim while at the same time undermining Trump.

Speaking to the North Carolina GOP convention on Friday night, DeSantis reiterated his broad criticisms of "weaponization of government" but did not address the substance of the case against Trump and also made some implicit jabs at the former president. You can't just "snap your fingers" to fix the problem, DeSantis said, adding that Trump has to have "some humility," "understand you can't do it alone" and surround himself with people who "put the mission ahead of their own personal self-interest."

DeSantis pollster Ryan Tyson explained the challenge of defeating Trump in a briefing for donors last month, which was later leaked to Florida Politics, an online news site.

In an analysis shared by other strategists, he argued that the Republican nomination will not be decided by moderate Republican voters, who already oppose Trump, but by conservative voters who view Trump favorably, support his "America First" movement, but are nonetheless open to supporting another candidate.

Tyson pointed to a voter he had heard speak at a recent focus group in Alabama. "The voter said, 'I'm voting for DeSantis in 2024 because he is Donald Trump without the crazy' - his words not mine," Tyson said. "That is kind of voter that we see that is gravitating toward the governor."

That has set up a delicate challenge for the GOP field to separate voters from Trump without offending their continued affection for the former president. A senior Republican who is in touch with multiple campaigns said they are closely watching public sentiment before "trying to push him off the bridge." These candidates, particularly DeSantis, this person said, do not want to defend him.

"But he's dominating in every poll and nothing has ever changed that. No one wants to get too far out on a limb before they see public sentiment moving," the Republican said.

A different strategist involved a campaign said: "You have to win over a lot of voters who like Trump and see him under attack if you want to be the nominee."

President Biden, meanwhile, dodged any questions about the case, while his staff continued to assure reporters that there had been no contact between Biden and the Justice Department about the Trump prosecution.

"I have no comment," Biden told reporters before giving remarks on his economy agenda during a trip to North Carolina.

The creeping concern about Trump's legal woes was evident further south Friday at the Georgia state Republican convention in Columbus, where the prosecution of Trump was loudly denounced from the podium. "We are not some banana republic, where the party in power uses the police to arrest its political opponents," Ramaswamy said in an address to the state party.

But in the hallways, activists rationalized their growing concerns about Trump's candidacy as a question of electability in a general election.

"If Trump's the nominee I'll be behind him 100 percent, I don't have anything against him," said Pat Quigley from Peachtree Corners, northeast of Atlanta. "There's a lot of baggage that's not his doing at all, but it's still baggage."

John Nance, a party secretary for the 6th Congressional District, said DeSantis offered similar ideas and values as Trump without facing already entrenched opposition from so much of the country.

"I would vote for either one, but I think Ron has a better chance of winning," Nance said.

"They're going to find a way to bring him down, unfortunately," he added of Trump. "All the things going on could interfere with his victory."

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The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner in Columbus, Ga., Hannah Knowles in Greensboro, N.C., Tyler Pager in Rocky Mount, N.C., and Dylan Wells, Maeve Reston, Marianne Levine in Washington contributed to this report. Arnsdorf reported from Columbus, Ga.