Trump, Blending Legal Battles and Campaign, Tops Long Day in Court with Rambling New Hampshire Rally

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gestures after speaking at a campaign event in Portsmouth, N.H., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — Dan Steele knows what a long day in court is like. So he was extra appreciative on Wednesday that former President Donald Trump journeyed to New Hampshire after spending the day in a New York courtroom, where he sat defiantly during his trial to determine damages for defaming a magazine writer after she accused him of sexual assault.

A retired trial lawyer for the Justice Department, Steele said he hasn’t dug into the details of the wide array of cases against Trump. That includes four prosecutions — including two by Steele’s former employer — plus the defamation lawsuit, which comes on the heels of a $5 million verdict for E. Jean Carroll in her initial sexual assault lawsuit against Trump, plus a fraud case filed by the New York Attorney General’s office. But Steele dismissed them as “all campaign interference by the Democrats because they can’t beat him any other way.”

“Every time he goes into a courtroom,” Steele, 75, who retired in 2016, said approvingly of Trump, “he always comes out with more support.”

Steele and a few hundred other supporters spent hours waiting for Trump, who delayed his New Hampshire appearance to hold a late-afternoon news conference after court concluded in which he slammed the judge in the case as “a radical Trump-hater.”

The former president spoke more than two hours later than scheduled in a location that was much smaller than his normal venue — a hotel ballroom that could only accommodate some 300 people. He concluded his long day with a rambling speech that lasted more than an hour.

He mocked his rivals in the primary, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Then he quickly went off-message, touting a cognitive test he took as president, his administration’s campaign against the Islamic State group and other familiar themes. Eventually he came around to bemoaning his legal woes.

“You know I’ve been indicted more than Al Capone,” Trump told the crowd. “You ever heard of Al Capone? Probably the greatest mobster of them all.”

The scene in New Hampshire was a somewhat surreal early look at the coming campaign, in which the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is still scheduled to face his first criminal trial on March 5, which is also known as Super Tuesday because 14 states vote in the nominating contest. While that trial start date may be delayed, Trump will have to juggle stump speeches and his legal defense throughout the year as he did on Wednesday.

Trump has made his legal woes a centerpiece of his presidential primary campaign, and his voters don’t seem fazed by his increasingly confrontational approach to the U.S. justice system. Last week, as his rivals crisscrossed first-in-the-nation Iowa before Monday’s caucuses, Trump largely stayed in New York and Washington, attending legal proceedings in two cases against him and making sure his voters saw him as fighting back against persecution. He won Iowa with 51% of the caucus vote.

New Hampshire is the next state in the Republican nominating contest, and Trump seems intent on mixing court with campaigning. On Wednesday, Trump was warned by the judge in the case that he’d be tossed from the courtroom if he kept talking while Carroll testified.

“I would love it,” Trump replied.

The crowd in New Hampshire cheered wildly as Trump came onstage and hooted warmly at some of his standard campaign lines. Trump was in an obvious good mood, enjoying back and forth with a receptive crowd after a day of being forced to sit still and admonished to keep quiet in court.

“Would you trust Joe Biden to run your store while you go off to New Hampshire to find a small hill to go skiing?” Trump asked at one point, riffing on his likely Democratic rival in November like a standup comic.

Later, he quipped about former President Jimmy Carter, who is currently in hospice care in Georgia with terminal cancer. “He’s happy because his presidency is now considered brilliant in comparison to Joe Biden,” Trump said.

At one point, after Trump quoted praise from his former White House physician, now a Republican congressman from Texas and a fierce Biden critic, the crowd burst out laughing. “That’s Ronny Jackson of Texas,” Trump said, as if he was crediting a fellow performer on stage.

Eventually, as Trump’s speech extended past an hour, the ballroom grew stuffy and people began to trickle out.

Attendees had waited outside for hours in 20-degree New Hampshire weather before having to wait hours more inside. But they were sympathetic to Trump, echoing his often-repeated arguments about what he contends is his legal persecution.

“I think it’s disgusting what they’re doing to him, but he’s doing what he has to do,” said Beverly Rider, who traveled from next-door Maine to the Portsmouth hotel Wednesday morning to begin waiting for Trump. “He’s doing it for us.”