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What Trump's 'arrest' claim says about his hold on politics and the 2024 election

Former President Donald Trump speaks during an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13 in Davenport, Iowa.
Jabin Botsford
/
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks during an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13 in Davenport, Iowa.

When it comes to politics, it's former President Donald Trump's world, and we're all still living in it.

With one ALL CAPS screed on his own, low-traffic social media platform — on a Saturday — Trump was able to move the political world, influence the media, cause law enforcement to scramble and show his continued hold on the Republican Party.

Citing ambiguous "ILLEGAL LEAKS," Trump claimed he "WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK." (Today.)

He then called on his followers to "PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!"

Senior New York law enforcement officials huddled Sunday to plan for potential protests. Steel barricades went up outside New York criminal court Monday.

Indications are that a grand jury in New York is very close to indicting Trump in a case related to a seven-year-old, hush-money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels. No reputable news outlet has been able to verify specifically that Trump would be arrested Tuesday — despite Trump's unsupported claims of supposed leaks from the district attorney's office.

But Trump's message had the desired effect, triggering the GOP's inside and outside game and boxing in rival candidates and potential ones.

Don't expect public opinion to change very much even if he is arrested. It hasn't moved much, if at all, in the wake of the myriad other scandals Trump has been involved in.

This strategy isn't new for Trump. Here's how it works: Post something provocative. Generate attention and headlines. Use said headlines to raise money. Pound the table. Trigger liberals. Send the right into a protective rage.

Rinse. Repeat.

It's the kind of thing he did previously as a candidate and as president whenever something bad was likely to happen — be it the Access Hollywood tape, the Mueller investigation, two impeachments, the election he lost, Jan. 6 or the search of his Florida home that turned up boxes of unreported classified documents.

In the 48 hours after that search, Trump's team raised more than $2 million. Since Saturday, there have been at least a dozen fundraising emails sent out in Trump's name about his impending "arrest" (plus about half a dozen more trying to shape the narrative).

You almost wonder if Trump does it just to see if he still can.

Congressional Republicans jump to Trump's defense

It certainly went according to plan over the last few days. With the House GOP at a retreat in Orlando, Fla., the "I-didn't-see-the-tweet" crowd went into defense mode.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy did some familiar verbal gymnastics. He first tweeted that the New York DA Alvin Bragg was displaying "an outrageous abuse of power" and said he was "directing relevant committees to immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions."

Later, asked by reporters about Trump calling for protests, McCarthy said: "I don't think people should protest this, no."

Then he contended: "I think President Trump, if you talked to him, he doesn't believe that either" and said people can "misinterpret" what Trump says.

As a reminder, here's what Trump actually said in his Saturday post (emphasis ours):

"...THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!"

During his speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, Trump said, "You'll never take back our country with weakness."

A fundraising email Monday afternoon called on his supporters to "stand UNITED in peacefully defending our movement."

But you can see how some might think violence could be triggered — and why even McCarthy and other Trump allies are trying to pump the brakes.

Flexing their newfound majority political muscles, a trio of House GOP committee chairmen are demanding documents, communications and testimony related to Bragg's investigation of Trump — and they want him to testify before Congress.

Republican presidential hopefuls have to comment too

Not only have Republicans in Congress leapt to Trump's defense, even his former vice president, Mike Pence, defended him.

"It just feels like a politically charged prosecution here," Pence, whose life was threatened on Jan. 6 and has fallen out of favor with his former boss, told ABC.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who is mulling a run for president and is no Trump fan, told CNN: "I think it's building a lot of sympathy for the former president." He noted that some Republicans, who aren't necessarily pro-Trump, "all said they felt like he was being attacked."

But when it comes to some other major candidates or potential ones, Trump world was accusing them of "radio silence."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, have said little, if anything.

DeSantis was the only one who ventured into territory that could be seen as critical of Trump, delivering this zinger: "Look, I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I can't speak to that."

But then, in the next breath, he said:

"But what I can speak to is that if you have a prosecutor who is ignoring crimes happening every single day in his jurisdiction and he chooses to go back many years ago to try to use something about porn star hush-money payments, that's an example of pursuing a political agenda."

Trump's team, as they have been when it comes to DeSantis, went on the attack. In an email titled, "Ron is wrong," it focused on DeSantis saying, "I've got real issues I got to deal with here in the state of Florida."

"Florida Governor Ron DeSantis doesn't think that the weaponization of our legal system is a 'real issue,'" the email read before showing quote after quote from Republican after Republican backing Trump.

"DeSantis stands alone," it says. Trump himself was even harsher on his social media platform.

Not only has all this been a strategic public relations move on the part of Trump world, it's also been something of a loyalty test.

The pressure he's putting on fellow Republicans is akin to one of the 36 Chinese stratagems of psychological warfare: "Beat the grass to startle the snake." Essentially, it means — do something to provoke a response from your enemy.

Trump likes talking about snakes, and his team certainly sees one in DeSantis, but, he should keep in mind what they say in Texas: "Don't dig up more snakes than you can kill."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.