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Trump, advisers caught off guard by indictment

March 31, 2023 Updated Fri., March 31, 2023 at 6:14 p.m.

Former president Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas, on March 25.  (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Former president Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas, on March 25. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
By Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey Washington Post

More than a week after Donald Trump had angrily predicted – incorrectly and with no specific evidence – that he would be arrested, the former president had grown cautiously optimistic.

Advisers had counseled him that a possible indictment by a Manhattan grand jury involving hush-money payments to an adult-film star would not come for some time – if at all – and Trump had even begun joking about “golden handcuffs,” said one person who spoke with him in recent days.

But on Thursday, the news that Trump had simultaneously resigned himself to and believed he could wish away finally broke: A Manhattan grand jury had voted to indict him over hush-money payments to adult-film star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign, making him the first ex-president charged with a crime.

Trump’s team had long been preparing for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation to end in a possible indictment. His top political advisers, including Chris LaCivita and Jason Miller, had begun drafting statements to blast out and lines of attack against Bragg and Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen, thought to be one of Bragg’s key witnesses.

But when the indictment came, Trump and his advisers were caught off guard.

“It was a surprise to everybody,” said David Urban, a longtime Trump adviser who is not working on his 2024 presidential campaign.

Some of his lawyers had been preparing to take a few days off, not expecting any movement for several weeks, said two people familiar with the matter who, like many in Trump’s orbit, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly share details of private discussions. Some Trump aides – including adviser Boris Epshteyn, who is taking a leading role on Trump’s legal team – had even begun telling the former president that he would not be indicted at all, people familiar with the comments said.

In a sign of the chaotic scramble, Trump misspelled “indicted” in a post on his social media network Truth Social, writing that “Thugs and Radical Left Monsters” had just “INDICATED” him.

Trump is expected to appear Tuesday in Manhattan, one adviser said. His legal team, speaking by phone late Thursday, scrambled to figure out the logistics and coordinate with the Secret Service on the security specifics for his arraignment.

After news of the indictment broke Thursday night, Trump dined at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, with his wife, Melania, her parents and conservative radio host Mark Levin, while also speaking with advisers for his 2024 presidential campaign sitting nearby. The indictment caused his recent good spirits to sour, with one adviser describing him as “irritated” and “deflated.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview that he spoke with Trump on Thursday evening for a few minutes and that the former president was “upset and disappointed” but also “very calm.”

“They are using the law as a weapon against me,” Trump griped to Graham.

Graham said he counseled calm and that Trump seemed to agree. “He thinks most people will see it as a weaponization of the law,” Graham said. “From a political point of view, it’s going to solidify Trump’s standing with the Republican Party.”

Indeed, Trump almost immediately escalated his fundraising pitches Thursday night, asking his supporters in an email titled, “BREAKING: PRESIDENT TRUMP INDICTED,” to give at least $24 to “defend our movement from the never-ending witch hunts.”

“We are living through the darkest chapter of American history,” read the email, which claimed all contributions would be matched up to 1,500 percent but failed to say who would match the donations.

One adviser said that while Trump would prefer not to be indicted, the former president planned to “milk it for all it’s worth politically,” using the criminal charges to rally Republicans around him and his 2024 campaign, portray himself as a victim and fundraise.

Trump allies have said his fundraising haul has increased significantly since he posted on Truth Social that he expected to be arrested, taking in more than $2 million. And the biggest fundraising day of his post-presidency so far was the day after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last year for classified documents.

The causeway that leads to Mar-a-Lago has long been a rally spot for Trump supporters, especially during his presidency, when they would regularly gather to cheer on his motorcade.

But as the sun set along the causeway Thursday, more people were fishing for sand perch and croaker than had shown up to the support the former president. Shortly before 8 p.m., only a half dozen Trump supporters had amassed in their usual spot.

“A travesty of justice occurred today – our hearts are broken,” said Mary Kelley, 77, of Lake Worth, Fla., who arrived waving a “Trump 2024” flag. “We are here supporting our president. We always have. We always will. And he knows we are here.”

At least one anti-Trump protester was also in attendance. Victoria Doyle, a 57-year-old attorney from Lake Worth Beach, Fla., arrived carrying a sign that included an expletive aimed at the former president.

Doyle said she had made the sign more than a week ago, when Trump first said he expected to be indicted, and agonized for days over whether she would ever be able to carry it.

So when she heard the news Thursday evening, Doyle raced to the causeway to unfurl her sign. Despite some heckling, Doyle held her ground as the lone Trump opponent, pacing and shouting, “Lock him up!” while also expressing her dismay that more had not gathered to share her enthusiasm for the grand jury’s decision.

“I expected to have some fellow celebrators here,” Doyle said. “But that is okay. I will always show up to celebrate justice and consequences. I’m a lawyer.”

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The Washington Post’s Tim Craig in Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.

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