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'Not a shock': Trump world shrugs off charges of defrauding America

Even a third indictment doesn't seem like it will knock the former president off his perch as the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.
Donald Trump speaks in Washington in June 2023.
Donald Trump speaks in Washington in June 2023.Nathan Howard / Bloomberg via Getty Images

It was just another Tuesday for former President Donald Trump.

He golfed at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, chatted with staff and club members there and was relatively nonchalant as he awaited something that is becoming a part of his new reality: being indicted.

Special counsel Jack Smith on Tuesday unsealed an indictment against Trump alleging he tried to undermine democracy by overturning the 2020 election and disenfranchising lawful votes. It is the third indictment Trump is facing and comes after months of investigation that included grand jury testimony from a range of witnesses, including former Vice President Mike Pence.

The scope of this indictment is more sweeping than the others — and, for many of Trump's critics, more disqualifying. Yet in the short term, it may not have much political impact. Trump remains the overwhelming GOP front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination. He and his inner circle remained calm as an expected announcement approached, in large part because they knew it was coming, according to five Trump advisers and allies NBC interviewed.

“Obviously we were expecting it, so it was not a shock, and it enabled the president to be prepared for it,” one Trump adviser said. “The indictment itself had been widely panned, and so there is also that. You can’t just criminalize the First Amendment. Most folks do not think that will hold up.”

The person was among the handful of people Trump consulted directly with on the phone, both shortly before the indictment was unsealed and in the hours after. His demeanor was described as a mix of defiance and resignation.

“He was not expecting the drama of the previous indictments,” the source said. “I think it was very expected. It just had a different flavor.”

Trump even went ahead Tuesday night with a previously planned dinner with Fox News executives, a source confirmed to NBC News. The dinner was first reported by The New York Times, which noted that they were lobbying Trump to attend the first presidential debate, which Fox is hosting.

At the heart of the four-count indictment are allegations that Trump tried to undermine the smooth transition of power that has been a hallmark of American democracy. Smith outlined three conspiracy-related charges: to defraud the United States, to obstruct the election’s official preceding and to disenfranchise official votes. The fourth count is related to allegations that Trump attempted to obstruct the vote-certification from proceeding.

The monumental moment in American history sets up a split screen of a former president who is facing legal jeopardy for trying to overturn an election — while also running to become president once again.

Trump has a significant double-digit lead over the rest of the Republican contenders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been widely considered his closest competition. 

The political reaction has fallen along predictable lines. Pence, whom Trump pressured to block certification of the 2020 election results and whose life was threatened by Jan. 6 rioters, once again said that anyone who puts themselves “over the Constitution” should not be president. 

Vivek Ramaswamy, who has run as a Trump ally, called the indictment “un-American” and doubled down on his promise to pardon Trump if he is convicted on any federal charges.

Republican presidential candidates who have run as anti-Trump counterweights, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, all blasted Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 election.

Others continued to try and take a more nuanced approach, avoiding talking about the specifics outlined in the indictment and continuing to focus on what they say is the “weaponization” of the nation's justice system. That included DeSantis, who said if he is elected he would pursue a constitutional amendment to allow people indicted in Washington to move those cases to their home districts.

“While I’ve seen reports, I have not read the indictment,” DeSantis said. “I do, though, believe we need to enact reforms so that Americans have the right to remove cases from Washington, D.C. to their home districts.”

This is Trump’s first indictment in Washington, and the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, has ruled against Trump’s legal interests in the past. In late 2021, Chutkan — appointed by former President Barack Obama — ruled that the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection could have access to the evidence that ultimately played a key role in the committee’s findings, and later the Smith indictment. 

“The president can’t get a fair trial in D.C., and it’s clear this judge has had very partisan behavior,” said a Trump adviser with direct knowledge of the former president’s thinking. 

When asked if Trump’s legal team would move to get a new judge, the person said, “I don’t know that we are there yet.”

Trump has now been indicted three times — once by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg over alleged hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, and twice by Smith who also got a grand jury in South Florida to bring charges against Trump over taking classified documents from his time in the White House. 

Each indictment has further intensified a belief among Trump supporters that the nation’s justice system has been weaponized and politicized by Biden.

Bob Burns, a onetime congressional candidate in New Hampshire whom Trump backed in last year’s midterms, said the indictment won’t matter one bit, especially with Republicans.

“He’s the inevitable Republican nominee, barring a health condition or a meteor falling from the sky,” Burns said.

Republicans have grown immune to the daily drip of negative news on Trump as Democrats have with Biden’s son Hunter, who has long battled addiction and is facing tax charges in Delaware, he said. The latest indictment, despite the stunning nature of the charges, won’t affect Trump’s deep support, he added.

“It’s not swaying anybody either way," Burns said. "The American public on both sides are numb to: ‘You’re a criminal! No, you’re a criminal!’”

A close Trump ally doubled-down on the idea that the former president is simply being targeted by Biden’s Justice Department: “Clearly he was taking governing lessons from his Communist paymasters the last few years.”

While Trump has still been calling the indictments a means of 2024 election interference, others in Trump’s sphere have also begun pointing to a pattern of Trump indictments being preceded by legal around investigations into the president's son, Hunter Biden.

“Anyone else noticing a pattern here? The corrupt beurocrats of the Biden regime charge Trump literally the day after every single disastrous Biden crime family story,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Tuesday evening, misspelling "bureaucrats."

“There is a distinct pattern emerging. Every time that Biden wrongdoing is uncovered, President Trump is targeted by Democrat lawfare,” the pro-Trump super PAC MAGA, Inc. wrote in an email to supporters.

Politically, it is way better for Trump to have three or four indictments instead of one.

Trump ally

The newest legal woes for Trump, however, do come with new complications, including a judge his supporters see as hostile, and mounting legal bills.

Trump’s Save America PAC spent $20 million in legal bills — two-thirds of the group's spending during the first six months of 2023, campaign finance reports reveal.

The staggering sum is starting to get attention from those who Trump hopes will help continue to finance his political efforts.

“Not sitting well with people,” a former Trump adviser said. “For some, that’s a disqualifier.”

Trump “may be way ahead in the polls,” the person added. “But it’s not going to matter if you don’t have any money and donors don’t open their wallets.”

Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, though, is likely to remain as political rivals have proven unable — or unwilling — to find a way to use his legal woes against him.

Former Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who was in office during the effort to overturn the 2020 election in his state, said it’s unclear if there is a political path forward for Trump rivals even as he faces unprecedented legal woes.

“It’s hard to say, right? There are certainly folks taking big steps in certain lanes,” Duncan, a Republican, said.

“I still think there is a lane for somebody special to show up on the scene,” he added. “Somebody unique. I don’t know if that’s ... some over-the-top successful business leader. Or maybe it’s somebody like [Virginia Gov.] Glenn Youngkin, [Georgia Gov.] Brian Kemp, somebody that steps in the light and says, ‘You know what, I’m going to take the torch, and I’m going to go lead the party, and I am not going to get distracted by Trump’s three-ring circus.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s political advisers not only remained undeterred politically, but think that the increasing number of indictments against the former president helps muddy the waters in a way that benefits the former president's standing with the Republican political base.

A senior congressional aide in the House said that by now the indictments are "normalized" and Republicans need to focus on using the deep legal jeopardy of the former president to win in 2024, "operationalizing the anger and backlash into voter turnout, fundraising and moving full-steam ahead with winning the nomination and ultimately the presidency."

“Politically, it is way better for Trump to have three or four indictments instead of one,” a Trump ally said. “When it’s one, all of the focus is on the details of that single case. When there are multiple, the specific details get lost to the wider narrative.”

“It makes it way easier to make the case that it’s a witch hunt when it is more than one case,” they added.