As Trump rallies in New Hampshire, legal woes play in real time

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — In New York, the woman who accused Donald Trump of raping her decades ago sat on the stand for a second day. In Washington, former Vice President Mike Pence testified before a federal grand jury, part of the special counsel investigation into the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

But here in Manchester, hundreds of miles away, those legal troubles were far from the focus as Trump spent more than an hour on Thursday riling up his faithful over the economy, international trade tariffs and his newly nicknamed adversary —“Crooked Joe” Biden — in a key early state ahead of next year’s presidential election.

For almost any other candidate in any other campaign, a criminal indictment and a civil trial over a rape accusation would sound a death knell.

For Trump, it’s barely a blip. The former president’s polling lead over his 2024 Republican rivals has grown as his legal morass deepens. A recurring joke he made again Thursday about being served a subpoena if he so much as flies over a Democratic-leaning state drew laughs and applause from those attending.

Trump supporters at his campaign rally in downtown Manchester were unfazed by the latest developments in his legal woes, accusing Democrats of weaponizing the judicial system against the former president and dismissing as more noise the civil defamation lawsuit in which Trump is accused of rape.

“It’s just a lot of distraction,” said Bert Sooner, a 60-year-old Republican and Trump supporter from Gilmanton, N.H.

“If anything,” Trump’s legal troubles “just seem to propel him,” Sooner added.

Trump returned to New Hampshire on Thursday for the first time since his legal drama deepened and since Biden launched his reelection campaign.

The former president made no direct mention of the lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, a magazine columnist who alleges Trump sexually assaulted her in the dressing room of a luxury department store in the 1990s, that began Tuesday in Manhattan federal court. Trump has denied Carroll’s account, saying the episode “never happened.” He was admonished by the judge overseeing the proceedings on Wednesday over a social media post in which he called the lawsuit “a made up SCAM."

Instead, he used a speech on economic policy to hurl insults at Biden — including slapping the “crooked” label he’s long affixed to Hillary Clinton’s name to Biden instead. Trump repeatedly attacked Biden, calling him a “hopeless person” and a “threat to democracy” who “doesn’t have a clue.” And he touted his record on the economy, saying that he left Biden with “a booming economy” but that the president “blew it to shreds.”

Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, pushed back immediately.

“Trump’s lies won’t change the fact he holds the worst jobs record of any president since the Great Depression and rigged the economy for the ultra-wealthy and biggest corporations,” Moussa said in a statement. “Trump’s stewardship of the economy was an abject disaster, in stark contrast to the over 12 million jobs the Biden-Harris administration has helped deliver for America in just two years.”

Trump also laid into his potential Republican rivals, citing polling that shows him with double-digit leads to rib Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — “Ron DeSanctus” — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, whose name drew immediate and loud boos from the crowd in his home state. A Fox News poll out Wednesday showed Trump with a 32-point lead over DeSantis.

Trump leaned on his polling leads to revive his threats to skip a presidential primary debate. The former president and his advisers have privately raised concerns about the debate slated for August, saying it’s too far in advance of the first nominating contests, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

“Nixon and Reagan and Bush … no, they didn’t debate in the primaries,” Trump said on Thursday. “Seriously, you look at the boards … and you’re looking at these numbers. Why would you do that?”

“But I do look forward to the debate with Joe — Crooked Joe,” he added.

Trump’s legal problems extend beyond the two that bubbled up behind the scenes on Thursday. The former president faces 34 felony charges in New York related to an alleged scheme to bury allegations of extramarital affairs ahead of the 2016 presidential election. And on Monday, the Atlanta-area district attorney, Fani Willis, indicated that more charges might be on the horizon for Trump this summer in a case related to efforts by him and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state.

But in New Hampshire, the former president did not back down.

“I won a second time by far more votes, but it was a rigged election,” he told the crowd to cheers, calling for tighter restrictions on voting, including all-paper ballots, voter ID laws and strictly same-day voting.

“I don’t even care if you help me campaign — you don’t have to help me,” he told the crowd. “I just want help on making sure the vote is cast and counted fairly.”

Later, at the Red Arrow Diner up the street, Trump praised a woman convicted in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.

More concerned about border security and the economy than Trump’s legal troubles, rally-goers who in some cases drove five hours to see the former president erupted at his claims about the 2020 election, unburdened by concerns about what could be contained in the former vice president’s ongoing testimony.

“It doesn’t play at all,” New Hampshire state Rep. John Leavitt, a Republican who endorsed Trump on Thursday and joined him onstage, said of the various investigations and court proceedings surrounding Trump. “It’s in the past.”

Clad in their bright red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and draped in American flags and denim jackets with Trump’s face plastered across them, voter after voter brushed aside the various legal proceedings against Trump as the latest in a long line of attacks that haven’t stuck.

“I think it’s all B.S.,” said Christine Smith, a Republican from Derry, N.H.

Trump hasn’t held a campaign rally in New Hampshire since 2020 and hasn’t been in the state since late January, when he addressed GOP insiders at the party’s state committee meeting.

On Thursday, he packed The Armory function hall at the downtown DoubleTree hotel to its 750-person capacity, according to security, rallying hundreds of his stalwarts in the same room where DeSantis wowed Republican activists just two weeks ago with a burst of unexpected retail politicking after headlining a party fundraising dinner. Trump aides said the choice of location was a coincidence.

Even in a smaller venue than Trump supporters in this state are accustomed to — the former president typically favors the arena down the street — his supporters were enraptured by his return. They cheered and jeered in all the right places of his speech, which stretched over an hour and a half. Even as the crowd thinned slightly toward the end, dozens of people rushed the stage barriers when Trump began to work the rope line, signing hats and saluting his fans.

Jeffrey Duran, a Republican wearing a black T-shirt with a fake Trump mugshot on it and a hat with the former president’s John Hancock scrawled across the rim, stood toward the back of the fawning crowd and blasted the legal proceedings against Trump as “political persecution.”

“The justice system is being weaponized and used against the American people. If they can do it to him, silence the [former] president, they could do it to anybody. It’s totally un-American,” said Duran, who drove up from New York City to attend the rally. “It backfires on them, on the people who are pointing the fingers at him.”

Lisa Kashinsky reported from Manchester, and Kelly Garrity from Washington