CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Former President Donald Trump joked about his legal challenges while campaigning in eastern Iowa on Tuesday night, just hours after announcing he’d received a target letter in the Justice Department’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Headlining a Republican county meeting, Trump attacked investigators while trying to make light of what could be his third criminal indictment since March.
“I didn’t know practically what a subpoena was and grand juries. Now I’m becoming an expert,” he told the audience at an Elks Lodge in Cedar Rapids.
Trump also taped an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity in front of a live audience, where he vented his frustrations. “It bothers me,” he said as he continued to cast the cases as politically motivated. “It’s a disgrace what’s happening to our country.”
The trip to the leadoff GOP voting state was yet another indication that, when it comes to Trump, none of the rules of politics ever apply. Trump did not cancel the trip to huddle with advisers, and he was not disinvited by organizers. Instead, he carried on as he has for months, incorporating his latest legal woes into his usual stump speech mixture of grievance, lies about the 2020 election, criticism of President Joe Biden and his agenda for a second term. For Trump, indictment news is now routine.
Iowa, with its caucuses just six months away, is a critical state for Trump, his party’s decisive early front-runner, and his rivals.
He set off for his latest trip just hours after announcing on his Truth Social platform that he had received a letter Sunday informing him that is the target of special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the aftermath of the 2020 election and the events leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Such letters often precede indictments and are used to inform individuals under investigation that prosecutors have gathered evidence linking them to a crime.
Trump has already been indicted twice — once in New York and once in Florida — and also faces potential charges in a separate election interference investigation nearing its conclusion in Georgia, a stunning and unprecedented legal onslaught as he runs for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
But the indictments have yet to damage Trump’s standing. Instead, early polling shows Trump ahead of his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by 20 to 30 points, or more.
The monthly meetings of the Linn County GOP, typically lightly attended affairs, have become somewhat more popular in recent months as representatives from various Republican presidential candidates’ campaigns have paid visits to build goodwill with party regulars.
But Tuesday’s gathering was far from ordinary. More than 150 people — many wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” red hats — squeezed into the hall of the Elks Lodge on the city’s southwest side. Press covering the stop were cordoned behind the bar typically used for weddings and anniversaries.
At least as many Trump supporters remained outside the event, unable to get in, and were left on the sidewalk to greet the former president as he arrived and departed.
News of the target letter, said Linn County, Iowa, GOP chair Bernie Hayes, only emboldens the former president’s supporters.
“Does something like that engender sympathy? I think certainly it does,” Hayes said, as the small event room filled beyond the number of chairs set. “The man’s being persecuted, so they are just thinking of another way to persecute him.”
Some Iowa Republicans have said in interviews that the mounting legal battles Trump faces could make it difficult for him to govern if elected and that they have begun looking to alternatives. But Hayes said the developments have only strengthened the resolve of Trump supporters he talks to.
“If anything, people see President Trump is actually hardened by the trials he’s gone through and knows what he’s up against,” Hayes said.
Teresa Horton-Bumgarner from small-town Solon, east of Cedar Rapids, echoed that she and Republicans in her circle believe strongly the Biden administration is “using the judicial system as a political weapon.”
“Nothing that (Trump) did on Jan. 6, that I’ve ever seen that incited violence. He said to peacefully protest, and lawfully,” said Horton-Bumgarner, 56, who described the indictments against Trump as so “egregious” that Republicans “tend to rally behind him.”
Before his speech, Trump was interviewed on local radio, and railed against the investigations while dismissing potential negative fallout.
“The people of our great country, they fully understand what’s going (on). It’s election interference. It’s a weaponization of justice,” he said.
Speaking of his supporters, he said: “They are never leaving us because they want to make America great again. They’re with us. They have a passion like nobody’s ever had.”
The Jan. 6 probe has centered on a broad range of efforts by Trump and allies to keep him in office, including plans for slates of fake electors in multiple battleground states won by Biden to submit false electoral certificates to Congress.
Legal experts have said potential charges could include conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of an official proceeding, in this case Congress’ certification of Biden’s electoral victory.
In Washington, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Trump’s supporters would not be turned off by the developments.
“We’ll see what they come up with …. but I tell you, the more they target Donald Trump? I mean, boy, the base, they just eat it up,” she said. “They see two systems of justice, one for Donald Trump and one for everybody else.”
Trump called a top GOP ally in the House, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, to rally Republicans against the investigation and discuss their strategy for going on offense, according to a person familiar with the conversation and granted anonymity to discuss it. Trump also spoke with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the person said. McCarthy once criticized Trump over Jan. 6 but on Tuesday accused Democrats of trying to “weaponize government to go after their number one opponent.”
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate minority whip, said that, with one indictment after the next, voters eventually “tune it out. It doesn’t have the weight or the meaning that it does when you’ve got this many things coming at you.”
“Now, on the other hand,” he added, “it also creates, I think, kind of a lot of noise and distraction that always seem to surround the former president. At what point does that have some effect on people’s opinions? I don’t know.“
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report from Washington.