If one was to judge Donald Trump’s mood by the various missives he posts to his bespoke social media platform, it’s possible to come away with the impression that the latest indictment filed against him — the third of a possible four criminal cases he could face before next year’s election — is nothing but a boon to his re-election hopes.
The twice-impeached, now-thrice-indicted frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination spent the hours leading up to his arraignment lobbing broadsides at the prosecutor who brought charges against him for attempting to defy the will of voters and unlawfully remain in office after losing the 2020 election to Joe Biden. The focus, too, was on the respected federal district judge who will oversee the case against him at the E Barrett Prettyman courthouse which stands just a short walk from the Capitol his supporters overran during the January 6 attack on that building.
Rather than quietly slip in and out of the nation’s capital, Mr Trump took the opportunity to generate as much free publicity for himself as possible. He alerted news organisations to his travel plans so they could arrange for a helicopter to follow his Secret Service-chauffeured SUV as he traveled from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club to a nearby airport. It was there where his customised Boeing 757 waited for him to take him on a short flight to Washington’s Reagan National Airport.
Once he hit the tarmac, he traveled by motorcade, complete with a pool of reporters, photographers, and a television camera crew ladened with gear to transmit windshield-view footage from the short trip to Washington DC. Outside the courthouse, his lawyer-turned-spokeswoman Alina Habba ranted for the assembled media pool as Mr Trump awaited his appearance before US Magistrate Judge Moxila Upadhyaya.
Inside, a somber, subdued-looking former president-turned-defendant sauntered to the table set aside for him and his defence team, just steps from where the special counsel, Jack Smith, had taken a seat behind the area reserved for the government’s side.
Mr Smith glanced over several times at the ex-president as he conferred with one of his lawyers, Todd Blanche, while waiting for proceedings to begin.
Like a similar procedure at his first federal arrangement in Miami, the US magistrate ran a tight ship, advising Mr Trump of his rights and cautioning him against violating his release conditions.
But unlike the South Florida courtroom that was very much on the ex-president’s home turf, Magistrate Judge Upadhyaya made clear that Mr Trump is no longer in control of his fate.
The Indian-born, Kansas-raised jurist, a respected defence attorney in her own right before being named to the bench last September, told the ex-president’s attorneys in no uncertain terms that she and the district judge overseeing the case, Judge Tanya Chutkan, have no intention of allowing dilatory tactics to carry the day. She ordered his lawyers to file a written motion to “toll,” or stop, the countdown clock that guarantees him and the government a “speedy” trial, and told them that Judge Chutkan intends to set a trial date when the parties are back in court on 28 August.
Unlike his Miami court appearance, Mr Trump did not make a spectacle of himself upon leaving the courthouse. He did not wave to any cheering crowds outside because this time, the majority of people who gathered outside the courthouse (or were stopped by police who secured his departure) were decidedly not in his camp.
Nor did he make an effort to be seen among his supporters as he did in Florida, when he stopped at a famed Cuban bakery and pretended to order food for everyone present.
Instead, his motorcade took him straight back to his bespoke airplane, where beneath the shelter of an umbrella he complained about non-existent “decay” in the city he left in disgrace nearly three years ago.
According to CNN, the ex-president spent the flight home in a foul, angry mood. He was reportedly particularly irked by Magistrate Judge Upadhyaya’s insistence on calling him “Mr Trump” — not “President Trump” or “Former President Trump” — and certainly not “Mr President”.
Today, the ex-president is on the way to Alabama, where he will air his usual grievances and complain about his predicament to a crowd of fervent supporters. He may seem happy to be a thrice-over criminal defendant, and he may publicly claim he eagerly awaits another potential indictment against him in Georgia.
But make no mistake – the real Donald Trump right now is the somber, whispering man who was so nervous at his arraignment on Thursday that he had to have two tries at saying his full name and age.
For the first time in his life, he’s no longer in control. And the longer he tries to pretend he still is, the more his fear will show through.