CLINTON, Iowa — The Iowa campaign trail has long been littered with mainstays, like Pizza Ranch and the Machine Shed BBQ restaurant, but Donald Trump aims to add a new stop on Tuesday nearly 900 miles from Des Moines: A courtroom in Washington, D.C.
His campaign and allies see this detour from the Hawkeye State days before the caucuses as a boost, not a detriment, to his bid to return to the White House.
“I think the Democrats intended to hurt him by tying him down in a courtroom, but it’s backfiring on them spectacularly,” said Mike Davis, an outside legal and political adviser who is in frequent contact with Trump and his campaign. “They’re turning Donald Trump into Nelson Mandela.”
As his rivals barnstorm Iowa, Trump will not hold another public event in the state until Saturday, just two days before the caucuses. Instead of stumping in Sioux City or Storm Lake, he will voluntarily appear twice this week in courtrooms, first at appellate arguments in Washington and then Thursday at closing arguments for his civil fraud trial in Manhattan. He’ll return to Iowa for a Fox News town hall on Wednesday.
“If Donald Trump were in Ankeny, Iowa, this week, he’d suck all the oxygen out of the state and the race, but if he has to go appear in court, he still sucks all of the oxygen out of the race and out of Iowa,” said Hogan Gidley, a former Trump administration official and senior adviser at the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute.
Trump himself has mused that his legal woes create political benefits.
Days before a Georgia grand jury handed up the fourth historic indictment of Trump, he predicted the state’s sprawling racketeering case against him could be, counterintuitively, just the spark he needed to sew up his return to the White House.
“Every time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls. We need one more indictment to close out this election,” Trump told supporters at a party dinner in Alabama. “Nobody even has a chance.”
The Republican front-runner’s team acknowledges the unusual nature of the campaign, as well as what this candidate and this moment demands of them.
“Is it a logistical challenge? Yes. But we are using it to our advantage,” a senior Trump campaign adviser told NBC News. “Every time he goes to court his support increases.”
Trump allies say that the court appearances resonate with voters because they bolster a common theme of the former president's stump speech: that there is a two-tiered system of justice and that he’s being unfairly targeted by the Biden administration. Appearing in court to fight those charges are more effective in pushing his supporters to the polls and fundraising than traditional campaign stops.
“In conservative circles, it reinforces the message that he’s fighting a two-tiered justice system,” said a Trump administration alumnus. “It’s ‘here they go again’ targeting me.”
It's a sentiment reflected by Trump-supporting Iowans here.
Simba Mambume, of Mason City, said seeing Trump forced into a courtroom makes him think of Jesus.
“When Jesus died, he died for us,” Mambume said. “When they are indicting him (Trump), we are being indicted. When they talk negative about him, they talk negative about us.”
But could Iowa voters, who expect much more personal attention from their candidates than much of the rest of the country, punish Trump for his relative absence here — making just 34 campaign stops since announcing his bid this time— a number dwarfed by his competitors?
His campaign shrugs off those concerns.
“In the span of two days he will address over 10k people. His opponents aren’t doing anywhere close to that,” said the Trump adviser. “We can have our cake and eat it, too.”
Davis, a native of Des Moines, argues that Trump’s pre-politics celebrity and that he’s effectively an incumbent inoculates him from some of the typical demands of the Iowa electorate.
“Iowans are going to expect Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley to come into their living rooms to ask for their vote. They’re not going to ask that of Donald Trump,” Davis said. “They’ve known him for 40-plus years.”