Republican polling leader Donald Trump is expected to return Tuesday to the federal courthouse in Washington where he was arraigned in August on charges of interfering with the 2020 election results, making a voluntary appearance just before the Iowa caucuses.
His choice to observe the oral argument in his appeal to make him immune from prosecution instead of spending more time in Iowa six days ahead of the GOP’s first nominating contest there reflects the bet he and his campaign are placing on blending his criminal defense with his electoral message. Tuesday’s appearance is poised to be the first of many times this year that he quickly pivots between the courtroom and the campaign trail or brings the campaign to the courthouse steps as he faces four separate criminal cases and two civil trials.
Both in campaign speeches and legal filings, Trump, who polls well ahead in Iowa and other early states, is seeking to portray the criminal charges and civil proceedings he faces as political attacks — a tactic his campaign successfully used to consolidate support in the Republican primary, but one that faces a murkier political outlook in a general election.
In a fundraising email that distorted the situation, Trump misleadingly claimed to supporters that Biden was “forcing me into a courtroom in our nation’s capital” and distracting him from campaign strategizing. Attending an appellate oral argument is not uncommon but not required. Tuesday’s appearance is the first of two courtroom trips Trump will be making this week. On Thursday, Trump is expected to attend closing arguments at his civil fraud trial in New York.
Spokespeople for his two main Republican rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, did not respond for requests to comment on Trump’s decision to spend Tuesday in court instead of campaigning. Both have indirectly blamed Trump’s legal challenges for distracting him from voters’ concerns, creating too much drama and chaos, or hurting his ability to beat President Biden in November.
“Chaos follows him,” Haley said at a Fox News town hall Monday night. “And y’all know I’m right.”
But such arguments have not shaken his grip on the race, reinforcing a view on Trump’s team that court appearances can function as well or even better than traditional campaign events. Trump intends Tuesday’s appearance to show seriousness and defiance in a faceoff with special counsel Jack Smith, according to people close to the former president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. They said he sees showing up to court as a way to go on the offense and steal the national news spotlight.
“We are not going to allow them to have any free shots on goal,” one adviser said.
The Trump campaign declined to comment.
At Tuesday’s argument in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump’s lawyers led by D. John Sauer will argue that the trial scheduled for March on Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election cannot proceed, either because he was already acquitted by Congress in a 2021 impeachment, or because he has immunity for all actions taken as president. The trial judge, Tanya S. Chutkan, rejected that claim, ruling that serving as president “does not confer a lifelong ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ pass.”
The three-judge panel — consisting of two Biden appointees, Michelle Childs and Florence Pan, and one George H.W. Bush appointee, Karen Henderson — is hearing the case after the Supreme Court declined Smith’s request for them to immediately decide the question. No court has ever considered the question before because Trump is the first former president to be indicted.
In Iowa, where Trump campaigned Saturday and plans to return for a Wednesday televised town hall, there is no indication that he is paying any political price for taking time away from the trail, despite the tradition of steep expectations for up-close, in-person attention.
“He can’t come here as much as he wants to because he’s tied up with the justice system, something he cannot help,” said Bob Carlson, a semiretired surgeon in Muscatine who attended a Trump event in Clinton on Saturday and plans on caucusing for the former president.
Over the weekend, a precinct captain for DeSantis urged the Florida governor to stay in the race despite trailing in Iowa “because the first person might be in jail.” DeSantis replied, “I agree with you.”
Trump has told advisers he thinks he gets better news coverage and more deference from the legal system when he attends proceedings in person and that it has been a mistake in the past to skip certain court dates.
“No one’s going to be talking about whatever else is going on in the news on Tuesday,” another campaign adviser said.
Besides wanting to get media attention, Trump also simply likes to be there, another person close to him said. He likes to see the proceedings for himself, hear the arguments his team is making, confer with them during breaks and “have some control of the situation,” this person said. “He doesn’t like to delegate.”
The court appearance brings Trump back to the scene of the crime, as the courthouse faces the Capitol’s west front, a few days after the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. The indictment does not accuse Trump of inciting the riot, as his impeachment did, but it alleges he and co-conspirators exploited the disruption to try to further delay the formal certification of Trump’s electoral loss.
When Trump last appeared at the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse for his arraignment in August, protesters and counterprotesters filled the surrounding streets to greet his motorcade with taunts, signs, cellphone cameras or sometimes solemn silence.
Trump raised a similar immunity defense in a motion on Monday seeking to dismiss state charges in Atlanta alleging criminal election interference. Trump is facing 13 charges in Georgia, including violating the state’s racketeering act, soliciting a public officer to violate their oath, conspiring to impersonate a public officer, conspiring to commit forgery in the first degree and conspiring to file false documents. He pleaded not guilty.
In New York, where Trump will go Thursday, state Attorney General Letitia James sued Trump, his company and four current and former executives there including his adult sons. James has asked for a $370 million fine plus interest, representing ill-gotten gains that Trump and the other defendants allegedly received through a practice of deceiving lenders and insurance companies for a decade.
New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron, who oversaw the bench trial, already ruled the defendants committed fraud and must now determine whether specific illegal acts occurred. Engoron has already determined that business certificates for Trump entities in the state will be canceled and a receiver appointed, and could still impose a monitor and further limit the Trump Organization’s ability to operate in New York when he decides the rest of the case.
Meryl Kornfield and Hannah Knowles in Iowa, Shayna Jacobs in New York, and Rachel Weiner in Washington contributed to this report.