Former President Donald J. Trump was gathered with his key political advisers in an office near his poolside villa at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, when his phone rang around 7 p.m. Thursday. On the line, according to two people familiar with the call, was one of his lawyers, who informed him that he was being charged for the second time in less than three months.
Unlike the first indictment — in Manhattan state court related to allegations he paid kickbacks to a porn star during the 2016 election — the current charges were federal and stemmed from his conduct just before he left office and for about 18 the month after that.
Mr. Trump, always divisive, immediately moved to political backlash.
At 19:21 he did what he did so often when he was president: he personally programmed the anchors of every news channel in the country. He broke the news of his own indictment — composing and then sending a three-part statement on his social media network, Truth Social, that soon interrupted the nightly broadcasts of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.
The former president issued an order against the Biden administration, but buried in his attacks on Democrats were pertinent details: not only that he had been charged, but that he had been subpoenaed to appear in court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon.
A studio van was brought to Bedminster so one of his lawyers could go on television. Another Trump lawyer, James Trusty, soon went on CNN to describe some of the allegations and recounted his client’s reaction.
“He thought about it,” said Mr. Trusty. “He said, ‘It’s just a sad day. I can’t believe I’ve been charged.” Mr Trusty continued: “These are my – my summing up of what he had to say. But at the same time, he immediately recognizes the historical nature of this. It’s crossing the Rubicon.”
For days, Mr. Trump’s team sought information about his impeachment after three of his lawyers met with Justice Department officials on Monday. They went into the meeting after being told impeachment was likely, and nothing they said changed that outlook, according to people close to Mr. Trump. But while they suspected an indictment was imminent, they operated more on hearsay, gossip and news than on verified facts.
As speculation mounted ahead of the Justice Department’s notification of the indictment, Mr Trump’s team pre-recorded video of the former president reacting to the expected charges in a speech directly to the camera – and standing in front of what appeared to be a version of a painting of President Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm II, leader of Germany during World War I.
Half an hour after announcing his accusation, he posted the video on his social network. In it, he criticized Democrats, described the indictment as evidence of “a nation in decline” and called himself an “innocent man.”
Mr. Trump’s team had urged Republicans close to him to start issuing statements, and his allies soon complied: Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a tweet, “Sad day for America. God bless President Trump.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy went further, calling it a “dark day” and vowing: “House Republicans will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable.”
That Mr Trump was surrounded in Bedminster by his political and communications circle, rather than most of his lawyers, reflects both the uncertainty of when charges might be brought and the way Mr Trump has consistently approached his legal challenges.
His political advisers had been preparing for weeks to use the federal indictment to full effect. His team began to view federal law enforcement action against him as a major part of its fundraising strategy. Online fundraising — which has long been the lifeblood of Mr. Trump’s political activity because high-profile Republican donors have largely shunned it — has dried up for all Republican candidates in the past few years, including Mr. Trump.
GOP donors are exhausted by constant hysterical calls to give money to Mr. Trump to stop the Democrats from destroying the nation. It takes a lot these days to grab the attention of such contributors; accusations are among the few events that enliven people enough to reach into their pockets.
The last time Mr. Trump was impeached in New York, his campaign said it raised more than $12 million in the week after the impeachment — a huge jump in his previously anemic fundraising. Since then, Mr. Trump’s fundraising has fallen to a disappointing level, according to people briefed on the situation.
It was less than an hour after Mr. Trump learned of the indictment before his campaign sent its first mass email to monetize the sense of shared persecution and victimhood that the former president has fostered among his supporters. Trump’s fundraising appeal at around 7:45pm on Thursday began: “We are watching our republic DYING before our eyes.”
Mr. Trump’s allies outside his official campaign structure have also prepared to milk the moment and push his political antibodies into action.
Officials at the main pro-Trump super PAC, MAGA Inc., have been feeding their allies opposition research so they have talking points to attack Jack Smith, the special counsel who brought the case against Mr. Trump, on television and radio also appeared on social media networks. The group even leaked information about Mr. Smith’s wife to try to suggest that her donations to Democratic politicians created a conflict of interest for her husband.
Last week, as allies of the former president saw reports that Mr. Smith was likely nearing the end of his investigation, strategists working with Mr. Trump’s super PAC began preparing a television ad to coincide with the expected federal accusation.
The ad will be submitted for national cable placement on Friday, according to a person with direct knowledge of the plans. The ad’s messages will tap into themes that are running rampant among some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent defenders on Capitol Hill. They will portray the indictment as a partisan plot by President Biden’s Department of Justice.
Those allies also plan to suggest — without evidence — that the Justice Department timed the indictment to distract from House Republican investigations of Mr. Biden and his family’s business dealings.
As Mr. Trump prepares for his arraignment Tuesday afternoon in federal court in Miami, some of his closest allies are preparing a campaign to pressure his rivals in the race for the Republican nomination to rally around him.
“Every ‘Republican’ running for president should stop campaigning and go to Miami in a show of support,” tweeted Charlie Kirk, a young conservative activist who is close to Mr. Trump.
“If you don’t,” Mr. Kirk added, “you’re part of the problem. Either we have an opposition party or we don’t.
Workers for several rival campaigns had privately admitted they feared the indictment because it would take over the news cycle and deprive their candidates of media attention.
A senior adviser to one of Mr. Trump’s rivals in the Republican primary, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said GOP voters overwhelmingly believe any impeachment against Mr. Trump is a Democratic conspiracy and that they want to see all the Republicans fighting to defend the former president.
That leaves most Republicans running in 2024 in the humiliating position of feeling as if the only way they can appease their constituents is to defend Mr. Trump full-throatedly and stop their efforts to compare their records with his.
Mr Trump’s team ran the same pressure campaign the last time he was impeached, in New York – and it worked great.
In mid-March, the former president predicted his arrest was imminent, and his political operation and allies in the media began publicly badgering Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to come to Mr. Trump’s defense, which he eventually did.
This time, Mr. DeSantis attacked the prosecutors, but also did not defend Mr. Trump. Without promising to pardon Mr. Trump, as another candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, I didMr. DeSantis announced on Twitter, “The DeSantis Administration will hold the Justice Department accountable, eliminate political bias, and end gun violence once and for all.”
On Thursday night, there were other, more eccentric parallels to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment.
About 90 minutes after learning of his latest affliction, Mr. Trump — who had been playing disco on the patio of his Mar-a-Lago club since his April indictment — went to Bedminster’s main building for an alfresco dinner.
Wearing a red Make America Great Again hat, he again acted as a DJ, according to a person there, using an iPad to play some of his favorites: Elvis, opera singer Pavarotti and his show idol James Brown.