See how Trump is making his court appearances feel like campaign stops

In the past week, former President Donald Trump has split his time between the campaign trail and courtrooms. (Video: Jordan Gale for The Washington Post; Seth Wenig/AP/Pool/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
5 min

A series of speeches in Iowa, followed by a court hearing in Washington.

A town hall in Des Moines, then another court hearing in Manhattan. After that, one last barnstorming of the Hawkeye State before Monday’s Republican presidential caucuses.

This is what Donald Trump’s presidential campaign looked like this week and what it’s likely to look like nationally as the 2024 contest heats up — a whirlwind of rallies and court appearances in which the GOP front-runner never leaves reelection mode.

When he wasn’t on the ground whipping up voters in person, he tried to turn courthouses into his personal arenas, using the free publicity to insist he’s the victim of politically motivated prosecutions and litigation.

It’s a snapshot of how Trump, the first major presidential candidate to campaign under indictment, is likely to manipulate legal proceedings to serve his reelection efforts as he faces a 2024 calendar dotted with appearances in his four criminal cases and lawsuits.

Saturday, Jan. 6, Iowa

Trump spent the third anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in Iowa, where the the GOP nominating contest kicks off Monday.

In campaign stops in central and eastern parts of the state, he criticized the jailing of supporters who participated in the riot, calling them “hostages” and demanding their release. Prosecutors have charged roughly 1,200 people in the attack carried out by his supporters, many for assaulting police officers. More than 700 of the defendants have been convicted and sentenced, according to The Washington Post’s tracking.

Trump is polling far ahead of Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis in Iowa, which historically rewards the type of retail campaigning his Republican rivals have focused on as the caucuses approach.

But after his stops over the weekend, Trump jetted to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., and didn’t return for any on-the-ground events for several days.

Tuesday, Jan. 9, Washington

Instead, Trump on Tuesday headed to Washington for a non-mandatory hearing related to his criminal election-interference case. His attorneys were there to argue that Trump should be immune from prosecution for trying to overturn the 2020 results. Trump was there to seize the spotlight.

It didn’t matter that the other Republican contenders were making their final appeals to Iowans before what is shaping up to be a historically cold and snowy caucus day. Blustering before judges and railing against the legal system guaranteed Trump free national publicity — and an opportunity to raise money. President Biden was “forcing me into a courtroom,” he misleadingly told supporters in a fundraising email.

He didn’t speak during the proceedings, but in remarks afterward he threatened unrest if the charges derail his candidacy.

“It’ll be bedlam in the country,” he said. “It’s the opening of a Pandora’s box.”

Trump has deployed the same PR-as-defense tactics in previous legal fights, turning federal investigations, impeachment inquiries and civil litigation into political assets that enliven his base.

“Donald Trump is exceptionally good at playing Donald Trump and finding venues for the performance,” said Peter Loge, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University. “It’s all about him and what he’s doing next, whether he’s in a courtroom or a rally.”

Wednesday, Jan. 10, Iowa

Trump’s venue on Wednesday was a Fox News town hall in Des Moines.

Across town, Haley and DeSantis sparred over their policy records in the final Republican primary debate before the caucuses.

Trump got mostly gentle treatment from the hosts while his rivals duked it out on CNN. His event drew 4.3 million viewers, while CNN’s drew 2.6 million.

Thursday, Jan. 11, New York

By Thursday morning, Trump was back in his home city. Closing arguments were underway in the civil fraud trial in which Trump and his business are accused of inflating his property values to get favorable treatment from lenders. Like the hearing in Washington, Trump was not required to attend in person.

Shortly before the lunch break, Trump interrupted the proceedings to berate the judge and prosecutor. Flanked by his attorneys, he claimed without evidence that the case was politically motivated and said he should be compensated.

His attorneys appeared to ignore a request from the judge to “please control your client.” The judge cut him off after about six minutes. A trail of news cameras and supporters followed him from the downtown courthouse to one of his properties.

“If Trump said, ‘I’m going to treat these court cases with the decorum they deserve because the judiciary deserves no less,’ he would lose a lot of support,” said Loge, the GWU professor. “The point is, he attacks the system that he thinks is rigged against him.”

Trump was set to pivot back to traditional campaigning this weekend. His schedule had him making stops across Iowa, but on Friday his campaign canceled three of four planned rallies due to snow and subzero temperatures. He’s now slated to hold virtual rallies ahead of caucus night.