Donald Trump only needed 10 minutes to show why his growing pile of criminal charges is not yet loosening his grip on the Republican presidential race and why his opponents will find him so hard to beat.
The ex-president’s growing legal peril hung Friday over the first showcase featuring all poll-leading GOP candidates on the same stage – an American Idol-style audition in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
But his closest rivals didn’t dare bring up a legal quagmire that threatens to be a liability in a general election if Trump is the nominee for fear of alienating his still-massive support in the grassroots. Minor candidates with much less to lose did take on the stampeding elephants in the room – but were rewarded with silence or a torrent of boos.
Still, Trump couldn’t escape the reality of a campaign in which he seems to be running as much to recapture the powers of the presidency to sweep away his criminal exposure, as to implement an agenda likely to be even more extreme and disruptive than that of his first term. Every candidate walked out to the Brooks & Dunn hit “Only in America.” But when Trump arrived, the lyrics echoed his uncertain future: “One kid dreams of fame and fortune. One kid helps pay the rent. One could end up going to prison. One just might be president.”
Trump was making his first major public appearance since special counsel Jack Smith slapped him with new charges Thursday over his hoarding of classified documents at his Florida home after leaving office.
But Trump, the only one of 13 Republican hopefuls to get a standing ovation before he even spoke, largely ignored a flurry of cases that could force him to split time between court rooms and the campaign trail next year. He did lash out at the Biden administration for what he claimed was the political weaponization of justice.
“If I weren’t running, I would have nobody coming after me. Or if I was losing by a lot, I would have nobody coming after me,” said Trump, who has tried to turn his precarious position into a campaign trail virtue by portraying himself as a victim of political persecution.
As well as the classified documents case, Trump has said he expects to be indicted in another special counsel investigation – into his attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss and his behavior in the run-up to the mob attack on the US Capitol by his supporters. He is also due to go on trial in March in a case in Manhattan relating to a hush money payment made to an adult film actress.
But such is his strength in Iowa – where he has a huge lead in the polls – and nationally in the GOP that his major opponents avoided risking their own reception at Friday’s dinner and their chances in January by raising the new charges.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did stiffen his criticism of Trump’s legal situation – but did so offstage.
“If the election becomes a referendum on what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago, we are not going to win,” DeSantis told ABC News. “We can’t have distractions.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence implicitly raised questions about Trump’s suitability for future office but also avoided openly criticizing his former White House partner.
“The allegations, including yesterday’s allegations against the president in that indictment are very serious,” Pence told Fox News with the caveat that Trump was entitled to his day in court. “But I’m never going to downplay the importance of handling our nation’s secrets. It literally goes straight to the security of this country.”
Only candidates who are so far behind that they so far look to have little chance to win in Iowa or anywhere else directly took on Trump.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson went there – but it didn’t do him any good.
“As it stands right now, you will be voting in Iowa, while multiple criminal cases are pending against former President Trump,” Hutchinson said. “We are a party of individual responsibility, accountability and support for the rule of law. We must not abandon that.” His comment drew a single clap in an otherwise silent ballroom.
Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, an ex-CIA officer, left his stinging criticism of the former president for the end of his speech.
“Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again. Donald Trump is not running for president to represent the people that voted for him in 2016 and 2020,” Hurd said to loud boos. “Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison,” he said as jeers started to crescendo.
“I know, I know. I know. I know. I know. Listen, I know the truth. The truth is hard,” Hurd said, adding, “If we (nominate) Donald Trump, we are willingly giving Joe Biden four more years in the White House, and America can’t handle that.”
But judging by the snaking lines to shake Trump’s hand in his post-dinner reception and the much-smaller crowds at events hosted by his rivals, Trump remains the darling of his party. Much can change in the months before the caucuses, and it’s possible the sheer weight of legal threats could begin to weigh down Trump and convince some voters that, despite his hero status, another Republican might be a better bet. But if Trump is to be stopped, there is no sign so far that it will happen in Iowa.
Unlike some of the other GOP candidates, Trump is not using the dinner to also hold multiple Iowa campaign stops. On Saturday, he heads to Erie, Pennsylvania, for a campaign rally before what is likely to be an even friendlier audience.
Friday’s dinner in Des Moines, the state capital, was a rare occasion when the major GOP candidates appeared in the same place, even if they delivered 10-minute speeches one by one and never clashed onstage. Trump has warned he may skip the first Republican presidential debate on Fox News next month – a decision that might make sense given the size of his polling lead. The format of such events makes it hard for any candidate to break out. But it’s not impossible. In 2007, Sen. Barack Obama delivered a stemwinder that rescued his dawdling campaign at the equivalent Democratic event – then known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. A few months later, victory in the Iowa caucuses put him on the road to the 2008 Democratic nomination and the White House.
On Friday night, the former president’s strength meant that every other candidate was battling to become the Trump alternative, with a strong showing in Iowa that might set them up for a long duel with the front-runner deep into primary season.
The field came to Iowa with added incentive because of the wobbles of DeSantis, long seen as the top rival to Trump but who was forced to slash campaign staff amid concerns by donors about his profligate spending and his performance on the trail. DeSantis is now running a classic grassroots campaign in the Hawkeye State, holding small events and looking voters in the eye.
Polling is sparse so far as the Iowa campaign speeds up ahead of the caucuses in January, but Trump led in a Fox Business survey this month with 46%. DeSantis had 16%, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott had 11%. No other candidate was in double figures.
Despite the indictments hanging over his head, Trump made the most impressive 10-minute presentation. Showing rare discipline in sticking to the script, he demonstrated how he will use the legacy of a presidency that remains hugely popular among activists to disadvantage his rivals. Unlike most of the other candidates, he also tailored his message to the Hawkeye State.
“Hello Iowa, I’m here to deliver a simple message – there’s never been a better friend for Iowa in the White House than President Donald J. Trump,” the ex-president said, before rattling off a list of economic and other benefits, real and exaggerated, that Iowa enjoyed when he was in office. Trump also said that without him, the state would have lost its position as the first to hold a presidential nominating contest. Democrats have already decided that the mostly White, rural state does not represent the diversity of the rest of America and have changed the order of their primary calendar.
“Without me, you would not be first in the nation right now,” Trump said.
After a grim week filled with stories about chaos in his campaign and panic among donors about his performance, the DeSantis camp will likely be cheered by the Florida governor’s reception, and he won one of the few standing ovations of the evening after his remarks.
He defiantly vowed to visit every Iowa county and to chase every vote, in a message to those wondering whether soaring expectations ahead of the campaign were misplaced. DeSantis turned the focus from his own plight to the Democrats, arguing that his record in Florida would translate to 2024 success.
“I’m not budging an inch. We are going to fight back against these people, and we are not letting them take over our schools any longer. We are going to get this right as a nation,” he said.
“Everything I promised people I would do, we did.”
Scott, who is spoken of warmly by many Republican voters in Iowa and is seen as a bright new voice, also slammed Biden in his remarks.
“He is tearing down every rung of the ladder that helped me climb. I was a kid trapped in poverty, who did not believe that in America all things are possible,” the Senate’s only Black Republican said.
While most other candidates were heard politely, none appeared to boost their fortunes significantly. And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is planting his flag in New Hampshire, didn’t even show up.
To paraphrase Trump’s opening line, there was one message from Iowa on Friday night. The ex-president is going to be tough to beat, in the adoring world of the GOP primary – however many more indictments come raining down from the special counsel or elsewhere.