Despite decades of self-promotion and attention-seeking, former President Donald J. Trump had not been relishing every moment leading up to his arraignment on Tuesday in a Manhattan courthouse. He had been frustrated to find himself at the mercy of events he could not control, yet had also embraced a spectacle that he believed he could shape in his favor.
Interviews with a half-dozen people close to him or who had interacted with him in recent days showed Mr. Trump trying to maintain outward appearances that things were going well — bragging about his own standing in the Republican primary polls, mocking his leading prospective rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — while appearing pensive and even subdued at times.
People close to Mr. Trump have been blunt: No one wants to be indicted or arrested, and Mr. Trump is no exception, they say. While he was putting up a controlled front, his closest associates believed he was masking his anxiety.
And while Mr. Trump’s advisers insisted that all was well, some acknowledged in unguarded moments that Mr. Trump, who values the appearance of strength above almost all else, was unhappy to be in a position to be called a criminal by a prosecutor.
His behavior on Saturday at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., was a prime example.
Mr. Trump typically arrives midmorning, plays a round of golf and then has lunch in the grill room. On Saturday, however, he lingered for an unusually long time after playing his round.
He sat at his traditional table, in the corner with the windows looking out at the patio, with two advisers, Susie Wiles and Boris Epshteyn, joining him. Gary Player, the South African golf legend whom Mr. Trump reveres, was also there. Steve Wynn, the casino magnate and Trump rival-turned-friend, sat at another table nearby.
“Did you see the polls?” Mr. Trump asked fans and well-wishers who approached his table. “Big. Big. I’m up big.” He mocked Mr. DeSantis, who he said was struggling. At one point, in passing, Mr. Trump referred to his case in a Manhattan courtroom — an indictment he planned on pleading “not guilty” to — as “weak,” a person who heard the comment said.
Instead of heading back to his private club and home at Mar-a-Lago straight after lunch, as he usually does, Mr. Trump abruptly went out to the driving range, with his Secret Service detail in tow. A small group watched as he hit one ball after another for about 10 minutes. Mr. Trump, for whom golf is often a release valve, seemed to be blowing off steam, an observer said.
In the days since, Mr. Trump had tried to project the image that all is normal. After arriving in Manhattan on Monday afternoon, he grimly waved to onlookers across the street from the residential entrance to Trump Tower. Aides have said he had thought extensively about the spectacle of his walk into the courthouse hallway on Tuesday heading into the courtroom.
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Mr. Trump also spent Tuesday morning posting on his social media website, Truth Social, and made it clear that he was watching the Fox News coverage of his pending arrest. Using all capital letters, he wrote a post late in the morning saying, “When you see RINO’s Karl Rove, Bill Barr, or Paul Ryan on your television screen, just turn to a different station, or turn off your set. You’re better off watching the Democrats!”
Yet after aides had suggested Mr. Trump was weighing saying something to the cameras in the courthouse hallway as he entered or left the courtroom, he never stopped to speak, the rare time he has passed up such an opportunity. One person close to Mr. Trump said he skipped it because the camera had been moved farther down the hall than anticipated.
Mr. Trump has a long history of taking what most people would consider bad news and trying to spin it into a brand-building opportunity. Such moments have included his bitter divorce from his first wife, Ivana, during which he repeatedly tried to tell his story in The New York Post, or portraying his misfortunes after his business collapsed in the early 1990s as the epitome of a successful comeback.
His approach to the indictment in Manhattan — which could be the first of a handful, as he still faces investigations in Georgia and others by the Justice Department — is no exception. His campaign is capitalizing on the criminal indictment for all it is worth. Some allies have tried to connect his ensnarement in a porn star hush-money case to the persecution of Jesus Christ.
“Trump is joining some of the most incredible people in history being arrested today. Nelson Mandela was arrested, served time in prison,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia told Right Side Broadcasting on Tuesday. “Jesus — Jesus was arrested and murdered by the Roman government.”
Since news of the indictment broke last Thursday evening, the Trump campaign has pumped out continual fund-raising appeals. Mr. Trump’s senior adviser, Jason Miller, has said that the campaign has raised more than $8 million in online donations since the indictment, though actual figures will not be available to check for weeks.
But while he is often titillated by watching how much attention he can command, and loves to try to manipulate the press, the reality behind the spectacle this time was unpleasant to him. As Mr. Trump approached the courthouse on Tuesday, he posted, “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
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