IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After being charged with crimes, Donald Trump argues it’s the system that’s guilty

The former president doubles down on strongman politics in first post-arraignment speech.

Former President Donald Trump surrendered at a Manhattan courthouse Tuesday afternoon and pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Hours later in a campaign-style speech back at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump, who in November announced he’s again running for the White House, denounced the prosecution as a “fake case brought only to interfere with the 2024 election.” In his typical style, he sought to profit from controversy using distortions and lies, and he presented himself as a strongman who deserves to escape legal scrutiny.  

Faced with the kinds of charges Trump faces — to say nothing of additional ongoing criminal investigations — other politicians might have decided to make a brief, sober statement denying the charges and vowing to fight them in court. Trump is not like other politicians. 

Trump sought to invert the social and political pressures of the charges he faces.

According to NBC News reporters, the atmosphere before he appeared was “indistinguishable from a Trump campaign rally.” The campaign playlist was queued up, televisions at the front of the room were encouraging donations via text message, and hundreds of supporters were drinking from bottles of Trump-branded water. When Trump came out, he shook hands and worked the crowd as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” played over the loudspeakers.

Trump began by arguing for the need to “save our country.”

“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” he continued. “The only crime I’ve committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”

In those opening sentences, Trump sought to invert the social and political pressures of the charges he faces. He accused the legal and political establishment of succumbing to illicit behavior; the very notion that he could even be charged with committing a crime was, in his eyes, a sign of the country’s decline. 

Indeed, Trump lumped together his remarks about the criminal charges with rambling about how the U.S. is a “failing nation.” He criticized the state of the economy, the war in Ukraine, “unrelenting” crime, open borders and a weak military. The subtext was clear: Trump was invoking his “I alone can fix it” ethos to talk not just about policy, but about the entire legal order that underpins the country.

During the rare moments Trump addressed the charges head on, he spewed false information. “As it turns out, virtually everybody that has looked at this case, including RINOs [“Republicans in name only”] and even hard-core Democrats, say there is no crime and that it should never have been brought.”

That’s … not true. What is true is that legal analysts across the political spectrum vary in their assessments of whether Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg will be able to win his case. While there are skeptics, there are also former prosecutors who think, based on what’s known so far, that Bragg most likely has a strong hand. In other words, there’s no consensus, let alone a consensus that Trump is being wronged. Moreover, left-leaning commentators’ saying Bragg may have difficulty winning his case based on his legal approach isn’t the same as their saying “there is no crime.”

Significantly, Trump seemed to disregard instructions Judge Juan Merchan gave him earlier in the day during his arraignment.

Significantly, Trump seemed to disregard instructions Judge Juan Merchan gave him earlier in the day during his arraignment, in which he asked the former president not to “engage in words or conduct which jeopardizes the rule of law, particularly as it applies to these proceedings in this courtroom.” As my colleague Hayes Brown pointed out, that’s exactly what Trump did. “During his speech, he not only called out Merchan as a ‘Trump-hating judge’ but also said he had a ‘Trump-hating family.’ He then explicitly called out Merchan’s daughter for insult,” Brown wrote. Trump’s remarks were designed to help undermine the proceedings using a distinctly personal and provocative tone. 

Tuesday was a historic day — Trump became the first American president, in or out of office, to face criminal charges. Regardless of whether he’s convicted, it’s a good sign for the health of democracy that prosecutors are breaking new ground in observing the principle of equality under the law. But to Trump, the very idea that he could be held accountable for misconduct was a sign that the “justice system has become lawless.” He doesn’t want to fight the charges — he wants to fight the very idea that the law could be used to hold him accountable.