Donald Trump returned to a familiar refrain on Thursday, insisting once again that he had done nothing wrong even as new challenges pop up seemingly every day for the ex-president who faces a bevy of criminal and civil investigations.
Mr Trump returned to Iowa for a town hall-styled event with his favoured cable network, Fox News, moderated by primetime opinion host Sean Hannity, who is now the Fox star probably closest to the former president given the firing of Tucker Carlson, the network’s previous star pundit.
And confronted with a new leaked recording indicating that Mr Trump knew that he was retaining classified materials after his presidential term ended, he once again insisted that he had done nothing wrong.
“News broke yesterday there might be a tape recording where you acknowledged that you understood that these were classified documents [at Mar-a-Lago],” the Fox News host began.
While asking also if the ex-president knew who had leaked the recording of the phone call, he questioned: “Do you know anything about this?”
“No, I don’t know anything about it,” Mr Trump responded. “All I know is this: everything I did was right. We have the Presidential Records Act, which I abided by 100 per cent.”
He then moved on to attack President Joe Biden, before claiming: “I have the right to declassify as president.”
The explanation was nothing new. Mr Trump has long claimed that any classified materials seized by investigators at Mar-a-Lago were in fact previously declassified by him during his presidency — though he has shown no evidence of an order to do so.
And notably, the nod to the Presidential Records Act was another mistruth. The law does not allow for ex-presidents to retain original copies of presidential records after their terms end without the express consent of the National Archives, an agency that the former president has roundly denounced.
Nonetheless, it was a familiar claim for the one-term president who escaped two impeachment proceedings despite bipartisan support for his removal; Mr Trump has long asserted that any investigation or civil suit filed against him is merely the work of his political foes in an attempt to block him from power.
It’s the same response he is currently utilising in response to two separate investigations into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results — one at the Justice Department, and another in Fulton County, Georgia. In the first case, he has insisted that his actions leading up to and during the January 6 attack were nothing short of presidential, and denied any responsibility for inciting the riot or failing to address it.
In the second, he has almost jokingly repeated the idea that a shocking early-January 2021 phone call between him, the top elections official in Georgia, and his legal team was “perfect” despite him being heard in an audio recording asking the official to “find” thousands of votes to close his gap with Joe Biden. That’s almost word-for-word the language he used to describe a conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelesnky that led to his first impeachment trial.
His defences to the various legal challenges that have cropped up since the end of his presidency have taken on a derisive tone as he faces a stunning and unprecedented array of criminal and civil cases. In the Republican Party, his dominance over the 2024 primary field has only grown in recent weeks following the first-ever criminal indictment of a former president in Manhattan on 34 charges of falsifying business records, and GOP voters are showing no signs of losing the enthusiasm for Mr Trump that led him to victory in the 2016 contest.
That may explain why his recent events, including Thursday’s town hall, have been virtual repeats of one another. On top of the Republican field with little reason to believe that his dominance will face a serious test any time soon, Mr Trump was content on Thursday to play the favourites that win him the unchanging support of his diehard fans — subjects like China, where the ex-president touted his protectionist trade strategy and bragged about supposedly winning back billions in trade revenue. Or abortion, where he took a familiar victory lap, claiming he “got rid of Roe v Wade”.
These were themes the president has previously touched on dozens of times — he even had a brief chance to rant about the 2020 election and his attorney general who declared his stolen election claims “bulls***”, complaining that Bill Barr “didn’t have the courage to fight” rather than acknowledging that his own deputy disagreed with him.
The performance was a sign of a candidate returning to what he knows best, surrounded by a reportedly thinning circle of aides who are getting out of the way and letting the former president be himself. Given his iron-like grip over the GOP primary base, the strategy may work while making a pivot to the centre harder next year.
In Iowa, Mr Trump will face the first test of that strategy as his main challenger, Ron DeSantis of Florida, goes all-in on a bid to unseat Mr Trump as the frontrunner before he ever hits his stride.
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