Trump toggles between the courtroom and the campaign in the final week before 2024 voting begins

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  Donald Trump is turning the last dash to the Iowa caucuses into a showcase for his claims of political persecution as he seeks to suck oxygen from his trailing Republican opponents.

Trump’s expected juggle of courtroom appearances and campaign events this week will stand as an metaphor for an entire election overshadowed by the former president’s legal entanglements.

His strategy of anchoring his campaign on his falsehood that he won the 2020 election – which is at the heart of two of his four looming criminal trials – and his explicit calls for “retribution” have helped make him the strongest front-runner for a presidential nomination in years. It has also complicated efforts by his chief rivals – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who meet in a CNN debate this week – to disqualify him as strong nominee.

While Trump’s rhetoric puts off many Americans, his refusal to accept decorum and to recognize the constraints of the rule of law is a key part of his brand among disaffected grassroots Republican voters. By setting Trump – who faces 91 criminal charges across four separate cases – on the road toward a third straight nomination, Iowa’s January 15 caucuses would encapsulate the fateful collision between the ex-president’s legal plight and the 2024 election.

Trump’s increasing autocratic mindset, which pulsated through his weekend events, meanwhile appeared to justify President Joe Biden’s warning last week that his predecessor could destroy US democracy if he wins in November – the core theme of the president’s campaign.

The next few weeks are likely to show the extent to which the nation’s future remains entwined with Trump, who’s making clear how he’d be an even more untamed force in a second term, in which he’d likely seek to end federal cases against him.

This week alone, he’s expected to arrive in Washington, DC, for a key appeals court hearing in his federal election interference case and is also expected in New York for closing arguments in a civil fraud trial.

No other presidential candidate has spent the days leading up to the critical first nominating contest in courtrooms as the defendant in two separate trials. But no other White House hopeful could have hoped to mount a viable campaign under the same legal cloud as Trump, who has made evading accountability his life’s work.

The ex-president’s vow to use a new administration as an instrument of personal vengeance will be foreshadowed when his lawyers argue in a federal appeals court in Washington on Tuesday that his actions after the 2020 election were all covered by a constitutional cloak of presidential immunity and that he cannot be prosecuted for seeking to overturn the election. While the gambit in his federal election interference case is a legal long shot since it would suggest that future presidents could get away with crimes committed to stay in power, the case encapsulates Trump’s vision of the presidency granting almost monarchial powers – a distinctly un-American proposition.

Trump has made plans to attend the hearing, and also intends to be in court in New York on Thursday for the start of final arguments in the civil fraud trial targeting him, his adult sons and the Trump organization, multiple sources told CNN. Between those two appearances, he’s due to fly on his private jetliner back to Iowa on Wednesday before another return trip to the Hawkeye State over the weekend, in the final hours before the first voting in a 2024 election season likely to submit the US political system to a historic test.

Trump has used his criminal indictments and his civil fraud trial in New York as a platform for his campaign narrative that he’s an innocent victim of banana republic-style justice and to dominate coverage of the GOP campaign in a likely preview of how he will handle this week.

Haley and DeSantis are desperate to find a way to slow the Trump train

Juxtapositions between courts and campaign rallies this week will hand DeSantis and Haley a stiff task in halting Trump’s campaign, which is dominating polls in Iowa and elsewhere.

The rivals will clash in a CNN debate in Iowa on Wednesday night, in the most significant moment yet in their campaigns, while seeking strong showings in Iowa and in the New Hampshire primary the following week to remain viable. But the former president will not be there, choosing instead to take part in the safer environment of a Fox News town hall event in Iowa.

Both DeSantis and Haley have accused Trump of running scared. The Florida governor, for instance, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that “the idea he can go and just read off the teleprompter for 45 minutes and then … go back home, that doesn’t cut it in Iowa.” Haley complained in Iowa over the weekend that “Trump won’t debate me. He’s pulling a Biden and he’s not on getting onstage to the debate because he doesn’t want us to ask him the questions.” But neither Haley nor DeSantis have openly rebuked Trump over his behavior on January 6, 2021, or cast him as a threat to democracy.

Haley prefers to refer to his “chaos.” She debuted a new ad in Iowa on Sunday that encapsulated the contrast she hopes to make with Trump as a narrator says, “Imagine a president with grit and grace, a different style, not a name from the past.”

DeSantis, meanwhile, concocted another indirect jab at Trump when he also sought to accommodate the false belief of many GOP voters that the 2020 election was stolen. He complained the ex-president didn’t have a plan to ensure election integrity, adding that the GOP couldn’t “just repeat the 2020 election and have kind of the same thing happen again.”

The careful, euphemistic attacks from Haley and DeSantis show how they are loath to anger GOP voters who still sympathize with Trump, even if those voters are considering other choices, and how they have failed to find either the courage or the political dexterity to use the ex-president’s greatest potential general election liability against him in the primary race.

Is Trump playing into Biden’s hands?

Trump’s wild antics at his campaign events in recent days lent credence to Biden’s warnings of a democracy in peril, made Friday at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where Gen. George Washington girded his army for battle against the forces of an-all powerful British king during the Revolutionary War.

In response, Trump characteristically accused Biden of the same transgression of which he is accused in two of his criminal indictments. “He’s a threat to democracy because he’s incompetent. … I mean, they’re, they’re screwing with our elections. They’re doing things that nobody’s ever done before in terms of weaponization with DOJ, with FBI,” Trump said at a campaign event in Des Moines on Saturday.

The context of his remark shows the ex-president’s audacious tendency to rewrite truth and history for his personal gain. He was speaking on the third anniversary of the day when his mob left his rally in Washington, smashed their way into the US Capitol and beat up police officers in an attempt the thwart the certification of Biden’s election victory in the most flagrant assault on American democracy in modern times. Since then, Trump has called for the termination of the Constitution, suggested the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, should be executed for treason, and vowed to turn a second term into a campaign of “retribution” against his enemies.

The ex-president also displayed the uncouth behavior that has alienated key swing-state voters in previous elections and that the Biden campaign hopes will create a contrast with the sitting president that may compensate for his own unpopularity in a general election.

Trump offered a bizarre and incoherent monologue about how the Civil War over slavery could have been prevented with negotiations and mocked the Vietnam War injuries of the late Sen. John McCain. He repeatedly fulminated about his various indictments and court cases, calling special counsel Jack Smith a “terrible, terrible human” and the “personification of evil.” Trump also rambled at length about E. Jean Carroll, who won a civil case against him after a jury ordered him to pay her $5 million for battery and defamation after finding him liable for sexual assault. A second trial will begin the day after the Iowa caucuses next week to determine damages in Carroll’s second lawsuit against Trump after a judge found that he was liable for defamatory statements.

The extent to which the former president has convinced millions more Americans that the electoral system is rotten and that the 2020 was stolen from him is a commentary on the gaping divisions in US society and is likely to spell danger for the legitimacy of US elections and the cause of democracy for years to come. The success of his disinformation efforts perpetrated by conservative media was reflected in a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll last week in which 34 percent of Republicans, along with 30 percent of independents, falsely said the FBI organized and encouraged the mob attack on the Capitol

That erosion of truth and trust was a concern that resonated throughout Biden’s speech at Valley Forge. “The defense, protection, and preservation of American democracy will remain, as it has been, the central cause of my presidency,” Biden said, in a speech that was most striking because a US president felt he had to give it and because of his warning that nearly 250 years of democratic traditions could be about to expire.

The president will thrust home his message on Monday when he travels to Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of a racially motivated mass shooting in 2015. His appearance is not just an implicit appeal to Black voters, who rescued his primary campaign in 2020 in the state, amid recent signs that his coalition is fraying amid ebbing support from minorities. Biden is likely to make the case that the political violence and racial rhetoric that Trump unleashed can have devastating human consequences – even if the massacre took place before the ex-president was elected.

The key political question for Biden is whether his plea to Americans to save the soul of their nation, as he puts it, will overcome skepticism about his capacity at the age of 81 to serve a full second term, and public disaffection with the state of the economy despite recent data showing falling inflation and strong jobs growth.

As the 2024 political season has cranked into life ahead of the Iowa caucuses, it’s already becoming clear that the election will be as much about the character and political destiny of America itself, as more traditional issues.

“This is the first national election since the January 6 insurrection placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy,” Biden said Friday. “We all know who Donald Trump is. The question we have to answer is: Who are we? That’s what’s at stake. Who are we?”

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