Former US president Donald Trump blasted his historic federal indictment as “ridiculous” and “baseless” during his first public appearances since the charges were unsealed.
Speaking at Republican state conventions in Georgia and North Carolina on Saturday, he painted the 37 felony counts as an attack on his supporters as he tried to turn dire legal peril to political advantage and project a sense of normalcy.
Mr Trump cast his indictment by the Department of Justice as an attempt to damage his chances of returning to the White House as he campaigns for a second term.
“They’ve launched one witch hunt after another to try and stop our movement, to thwart the will of the American people,” Mr Trump alleged in Georgia, later telling the crowd that: “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you.”
The strategy is a well-worn one for Mr Trump, who remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination despite his mounting legal woes, which also include criminal charges filed against him in March in New York.
Again and again, in the face of investigation, Mr Trump has tried to delegitimise law enforcement officials and portray himself — and his supporters — as victims, even when he is accused of serious crimes.
Mr Trump also vowed to remain in the race, even if he is convicted in the case.
“I’ll never leave,” he told Politico in an interview aboard his plane after his speech in Georgia.
He further predicted that he would not be convicted and sidestepped questions about whether he would pardon himself if he wins a second term.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have to,” Mr Trump said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The indictment unsealed on Friday charges Trump with wilfully defying Justice Department demands that he return classified documents, enlisting aides in his efforts to hide the records and even telling his lawyers that he wanted to defy a subpoena for the materials stored at his residence.
The indictment includes allegations that he stored documents in a ballroom and bathroom at his Mar-a-Lago resort, among other places.
Mr Trump is due to make his first federal court appearance on Tuesday in Miami.
He was charged alongside valet Walt Nauta, a personal aide whom prosecutors say moved boxes from a storage room to Mr Trump’s residence for him to review and later lied to investigators about the movement.
Mr Nauta travelled with Mr Trump on Saturday, appearing by his side at a Georgia Waffle House stop where the former president signed autographs, posed for photos and told supporters: “We did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Earlier on Saturday, Mr Trump was given a hero’s welcome at the party convention in Georgia, where he drew loud applause as he slammed the investigation as “a political hit job” and accused his political enemies of launching “one hoax and witch hunt after another” to prevent his re-election.
“The ridiculous and baseless indictment by the Biden administration’s weaponised Department of Injustice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country,” he said.
He also used his remarks to rail against President Joe Biden and his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, accusing them of mishandling classified information and insisting he was treated unfairly because he is a Republican.
But Mr Trump overlooked a critical difference: Only he has been accused of intentionally trying to impede investigators by not returning the documents in question.
Mr Trump also lingered on Georgia’s role in his 2020 defeat, repeating his lies that he had won the state and defending his efforts to overturn Mr Biden’s victory, which is the subject of another ongoing investigation.
But aside from reacting to the news, Mr Trump’s remarks in both states largely mirrored his pre-indictment rally speeches, lending a sense of normalcy to a campaign that is well-practiced in responding to crisis.
And despite the latest criminal charges, attendees cheered him on in Georgia and in North Carolina, where he spoke at a state Republican convention dinner on Saturday evening.
The indictment arrives as Mr Trump is continuing to dominate the primary race.
Among the various investigations Mr Trump has faced, the documents case has long been considered the most perilous legal threat and the one most ripe for prosecution.
But Mr Trump’s continued popularity among Republican voters is evident in how gingerly his primary rivals have treated the federal indictment.
Mike Pence, whose appearance in North Carolina marked the first shared venue with his former boss since the ex-vice president announced his own campaign this past week, condemned the “politicisation” of the Justice Department and urged attorney general Merrick Garland “to stop hiding behind the special counsel and stand before the American people” to explain the basis for the federal investigation into Mr Trump.
In an interview with The Associated Press after his speech, Mr Pence said he had read the indictment but repeatedly declined to share his personal reaction to its contents — including the photographs of boxes with classified information stacked in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom and on a ballroom stage — or to criticise Mr Trump.
“The very nature of a grand jury is that there is no defence presented,” Mr Pence said.
“That’s why I said today I’m going to urge patience, encourage people to be prayerful for the former president, but also for all those in authority and for the country going forward.”
At the North Carolina Republican gathering on Friday night, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Mr Trump’s leading Republican rival, did not mention Mr Trump by name but compared his situation to that of Ms Clinton.
“Is there a different standard for a Democratic secretary of state versus a former Republican president?” Mr DeSantis asked.
“I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country … At the end of the day, we will once and for all end the weaponisation of government under my administration.”
Among the declared Republican contenders, only Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has explicitly called for Mr Trump to end his candidacy.
Mr Hutchinson told reporters in Georgia that the Republican Party “should not lose its soul” in defending Mr Trump and said the evidence so far suggested that the former president treated national secrets “like entertainment tools”.