Former President Donald Trump on Saturday blasted his historic federal indictment as "ridiculous" and "baseless," saying in his first public appearance since the charges were unsealed that the 37 felony counts were an attack on his supporters as he tried to turn legal peril into political advantage.
Speaking at the Georgia Republican Convention, Trump cast his indictment by the Department of Justice as an attempt to hurt his chances of returning to the White House as he campaigns for a second term in office.'
"They’ve launched one witch hunt after another to try and stop our movement, to thwart the will of the American people," Trump said, later adding, "In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you."
Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks during the Georgia state GOP convention at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center on June 10, 2023 in Columbus, Georgia. On Friday, former President Trump was indicted by a federal grand
The strategy is a well-worn one for Trump, who remains the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination despite his mounting legal woes. He planned to speak to a Republican audience in North Carolina later Saturday.
The indictment unsealed Friday charged him with 37 felony counts in connection with his hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump is accused 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 residence. The indictment includes allegations that he stored documents in a ballroom and bathroom at his resort, among other places.
The most serious charges 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 anticipated a hero's welcome at the party conventions in Georgia and North Carolina.
"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's White House campaigns in 2016 and 2020.
Trump said his political enemies had launched "one hoax and witch hunt after another" and claimed the charges against him were politically motivated.
"The ridiculous and baseless indictment of me by the Biden administration’s weaponized Department of Injustice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country," Trump told Georgia Republicans.
About 100 supporters, some waving "Witch Hunt" signs, showed up to the Columbus airfield to greet Trump as he arrived. Jan Plemmons, 66, wearing an oversize foam "Make America Great Again" hat, called the federal charges "absolutely ridiculous" and said she was ready to campaign with Trump. To Michael Sellers, 67, it was "criminal what they're doing to him."
The indictment arrives at a time when Trump is continuing to dominate the primary race. Other candidates have largely attacked the Justice Department — rather than Trump — for the investigation. But the indictment’s breadth of allegations and scope could make it harder for Republicans to rail against these charges compared with an earlier New York criminal case that many legal analysts had derided as weak.
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.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen on June 08, 2023 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The indictment includes 31 counts that pertain to the willful retention of national defense information. The others relate to alleged conspiracy, obstruction and false statements.
Trump is due to make his first federal court appearance Tuesday in Miami. He was charged alongside valet 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. In March, he was indicted in New York in a hush money scheme stemming from payouts made to a porn actor during his 2016 campaign, and he faces additional investigations in Washington and Atlanta that also could lead to criminal charges.
But among the various investigations he has faced, the documents case has long been considered the most perilous threat and the one most ripe for prosecution.
Former US President and 2024 Presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during a Team Trump Volunteer Leadership Training at the Grimes Community Center in Grimes, Iowa, on June 1, 2023. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Trump’s continued popularity among Republican voters is evident in how gingerly his primary rivals have treated the federal indictment.
Mike Pence, whose appearance in North Carolina marked the first shared venue with his former boss since the ex-vice president announced his own campaign this past week, condemned the "politicization" of the Justice Department and urged Attorney General Merrick Garland "to stop hiding behind the special counsel and stand before the American people" to explain the basis for the federal investigation into Trump.
"A former president of the United States facing an unprecedented indictment by a Justice Department run by the current president of the United States and a potential political rival," Pence said to loud applause. Pence said it was important to hear Trump's defense, "then each of us can make our own judgment. ... Be patient. Know that we will soon know the facts."
At the North Carolina GOP gathering Friday night, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump's leading GOP rival, didn't mention Trump by name but compared his situation to that of Hillary 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."
Kari Lake, a Trump loyalist who lost the governor's race in Arizona last year, used her speech to Georgia Republicans on Friday night to repeat Trump's false claims of a rigged 2020 election and she suggested that the indictment was another way to deny him the presidency.
"He’s doing so well in the polls that they decided they can’t stop him. So what do they do? They indict him on completely bogus charges," Lake said. "The illegitimate Biden administration wants to lock our beloved President Trump for more than 200 years. Wow."
Among the declared Republican contenders, only Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has explicitly called for Trump to end his candidacy. Hutchinson did not mention Trump in remarks at a Georgia convention breakfast Saturday, but told reporters afterward that the Republican Party "should not lose its soul" in defending Trump and said the evidence so far suggested that the former president treated national secrets "like entertainment tools."