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‘Now he’s seen as a symbol’: Republicans rally around Trump

PEORIA, Illinois — House Speaker Mike Johnson intensified his defense of Donald Trump before headlining a party fundraiser in Illinois on Saturday, as even this deep blue state’s Republicans seized on a Manhattan jury’s guilty verdict as a rallying cry for the former president.

“Terrible,” Frank Hernandez, a retiree from Caterpillar, said of the verdict while waiting for Johnson to speak at the dinner. “The prosecutors, the judge, Biden — they were all in cahoots.”

Johnson, who like many one-time critics of Trump has long since come to his defense — and who said immediately after the verdict in Trump’s hush money case that the Supreme Court should “step in” — told reporters here Saturday that if he was Trump’s attorney, “I think I would make an appeal to the Supreme Court.”

And after an army of online donors poured a staggering $53 million into Trump’s presidential campaign, Johnson said it wasn’t just Trump raising money off the verdict.

House Republicans, too, he said, had a “record fundraising day in the first 24 hours after that verdict,” though he did not provide a figure.

Trump, Johnson said, “is not just our nominee, not just an individual running for president. I think now he’s seen as a symbol, a symbol of one who is willing to fight back against that corruption, the deep state and all the rest.”

The full effect of the verdict on the presidential campaign may not be clear for months. Both parties were scrambling Saturday to gain a better read on the electorate, while pollsters were rushing to conduct fast — and, for that reason and others — likely unreliable polls.

Those surveys immediately following the verdict suggested it could become a drag on Trump’s White House bid. In a Morning Consult poll, 12 percent of self-reported 2020 Trump voters think he should end his campaign, while a Reuters/Ipsos poll found 10 percent of Republicans — and 25 percent of independents — say they are less likely to vote for Trump following his conviction.

On top of that, it’s possible that Trump could be imprisoned, though he could also be spared at next month’s sentencing with a lighter sentence. It was a Democratic prosecutor in New York, not the White House, who brought the case against Trump.

And Trump already had significant obstacles to unifying the party, after many moderates defected from him in 2020 and again in the GOP primaries earlier this year. In Illinois, Nikki Haley still got more than 14 percent of the vote in the GOP primary — and that was nearly two weeks after she dropped out of the race.

But in that same Reuters/Ipsos poll, more than one-third of Republicans said they were more likely to vote for Trump following his felony conviction. And among the GOP grassroots, the trial — and the verdict — is serving as a call to arms.

“He’s a fucking criminal,” said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020. “But he will not pay a price for this. In fact, this one will help him. This verdict is going to completely help him.”

In a “MAGA Trump party,” he said, it’s possible the verdict “has only unified the party even more.”

That’s the current consensus among Trump loyalists. Rhonda Belford, an Illinois Republican state central committee member, pointed to Trump’s post-verdict fundraising haul, saying “it’s blowing up like a big cigar on the Democrats, honestly,” while Jeanne Ives, a former Republican state lawmaker, said, “You’re not going to see those ‘Republicans for Biden’ signs in front yards. That’s going away.”

“We were divided for eight years, and it has cost us in a lot of different areas,” said Jim Rule, chair of the Tazewell County Republican Party that co-hosted the Peoria-Tazewell Lincoln Day Dinner featuring Johnson.

Citing “anger” and what he called a “miscarriage of justice,” Rule said, “I think the Republican Party is understanding the necessity to become one and to get behind Trump.”

For their part, Democrats have yet to settle on a post-conviction messaging strategy, as was evident in another blue state, Massachusetts, where Democrats held their state party convention.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, who sits on Biden’s national campaign advisory board and who repeatedly sued the Trump administration when she was the state’s attorney general, made no mention of the verdict — even as she warned that letting the Republican win a second term would be “dangerous.” Her restraint was in line with the sober approach Biden and many of the party’s establishment figures in Washington are taking on the verdict.

But Biden’s campaign, already with a fundraising advantage over Trump, has been raising money off of the verdict. And on Saturday, other Democrats couldn’t resist the subject. Some cracked jokes about the former president’s new criminal record — “Trump’s got 34 problems and being rich ain’t one,” quipped Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Others used the outcome of the trial to draw a contrast between Trump and Biden.

“Every time you mention Donald Trump, you should mention ‘convicted felon’ behind it,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who was recently reprimanded for talking about Trump’s trial on the House floor, told the crowd of Democratic Party faithful who had packed into an arena in his hometown of Worcester.

The crowd was well primed by the time Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another Biden campaign advisory board member, took the stage toward the end of the convention to deliver a warning.

“The convicted felon says he wants to be a dictator on Day One,” she said. “Listen to him.”

The crowd erupted into chants of “Lock him up!”

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