Trump skips much of the final week before Iowa's caucuses to go to court voluntarily instead

  • Canadian Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — While his rivals contend with snow drifts and frigid temperatures as they make their last−ditch pitch to Iowa voters, former President Donald Trump has spent much of the week before the caucuses in court instead, by choice.

Trump was in Washington, D.C. for a federal hearing Tuesday and is attending the closing arguments of his civil fraud trial in New York Thursday, with a brief trip to Iowa in between for a Fox News town hall. He’ll only return to Iowa Saturday for a final blitz before the Monday caucuses.

Both court appearances are voluntary and Trump was not required to attend either. But his campaign has come to embrace his legal woes as a centerpiece of its strategy — one that has so far, supercharged his candidacy instead of hobbling it.

That may not work in a general election, when Trump will need to win over moderate and independent voters who turned from him in 2020 while he fights four separate criminal cases in four jurisdictions. But campaigning just to Republicans, Trump is using court appearances to cast himself as the victim of a coordinated effort by Democrats to hobble the chances of their chief political rival and to push back against President Joe Biden’s assertion that his reelection poses a threat to democracy. He instead calls Biden the real threat.

Aides have said Trump is deeply invested in the cases, which threaten everything from his control of his business empire to his freedom. And he believes his presence in court helps him there. The appearances also guarantee Trump the media spotlight, giving him the opportunity to hammer his case, and pulling attention away from his rivals in Iowa.

“President Trump is always going to defend himself," Trump senior advisor Jason Miller said. “We’re not going to allow any free shots on goal of Joe Biden’s legal henchmen trying to commit election interference."

Since long before the race’s final stretch, however, Trump has spent far fewer days campaigning in the state than his chief rivals including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who visited all of the state’s 99 counties, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who visited each one, twice. The Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker this week listed 25 public Trump events in the state since March versus more than 125 for DeSantis, 79 for Nikki Haley and more than 300 for Ramaswamy.

Trump campaign aides argue that because Trump’s events draw far more voters than his rivals, he can reach just as many people with fewer events.

The less frantic schedule also doesn’t seem to have mattered in a state where Trump maintains a dominant lead over his rivals, with the focus not on whether he will win but his margin of victory.

“Any event that he has is loaded to the hilt," said Dave LaGrange, who owns a financial services business in Winterset, southwest of Des Moines, and plans to caucus for Trump. He said he views the former president as more of a “known entity" than his GOP rivals, who might need to spend more time getting out their message.

“I personally view Trump kind of in some respects as an incumbent like−type of candidate,” said LaGrange, who will serve as a precinct caucus captain and doesn’t mind Trump’s absence. "He hasn’t been here as much, and the events that he’s had are are sellouts.”

But others have voiced complaints.

“Where was he earlier, when he had the opportunity to be here,” asked Michael Peiffer, a Winterset farmer and small business owner who supports DeSantis.

“Dude, you’re the president,” Peiffer said of Trump. “You just farmed everything out to a bunch of other people … I don’t trust that you’re going to do anything different this time and you’re going to be 78 when you take office.”

In Trump’s absence, his campaign has been holding a series of surrogate events featuring top supporters like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Ben Carson, Trump’s former secretary of housing and urban development.

“I think it’s very important that we do continue to put his message out even though he’s got a number of people who are trying to do everything they possibly can to interfere,” Carson told reporters at one Wednesday.

While events featuring Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders and her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as actress Roseanne Barr, were canceled due to weather, his son Donald Trump Jr., will hold an event Thursday and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake will hold one Friday.

Those surrogates could also step in more if Trump’s criminal trials force him off the campaign trail for long stretches of time in the coming months. Some of those who have appeared are among those thought to be vying to be considered as Trump’s vice presidential pick, giving them a chance to demonstrate their draw.

It’s also a way for Trump to appeal to different constituencies.

On Wednesday night, Carson drew more than 100 people to a church in Davenport, Iowa — comparable to the number at many DeSantis and Haley events — and preached to the audience of Trump supporters in a calm voice about restoring Christian values to the national identity. He drew vocal reactions −− yeas and nays, amens and laughs – from the friendly room.

Carson reminded those gathered of Trump’s strengths, despite his flaws, saying not everyone in the Bible was a “boy scout.” His language may be a little “wild,” Carson said — and “offensive,” he said later to reporters — but his policies are right.

Like Carson, Cindy Brotzman of Davenport said she believes God is working through Trump. She wanted to see Carson on a cold winter night to join with a community of like−minded people to pray for the country.

Brotzman, a 55−year−old optician who also attended a Trump “commit to caucus” event in Clinton last weekend, said she cried when she saw the former president in person. She would love to see him again but it doesn’t matter to her how often Trump is in Iowa because “he’s like anyone else,” she said. “He’s busy.”

“I believe in the heart of what he’s doing. I don’t need him to make 55 appearances as long as I know that he’s steering our country in the right direction,” she said.

___ Fingerhut reported from Davenport, Iowa. Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Winterset, Iowa. contributed to this report.

Jill Colvin And Hannah Fingerhut, The Associated Press

Photo: AP