Soon after news broke that Donald Trump had been indicted by a federal grand jury, the former president released a rambling video defending himself against the charges.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler walked through all of the expected components it contained, which is to say its myriad false claims and exaggerations. But it’s also useful to understand how the video is intended to provide grist for Trump’s well-established hierarchy of sycophantic defenders.

Let’s begin by articulating that hierarchy.

The first tier is Trump’s base, that community of tens of millions of Americans who take Trump’s assertions at face value. Many of them bought into his rhetoric back in 2015 and have stuck with him since, accepting his various depictions of his embattlement as accurate.

Asked to choose between two options — either that Trump is uniquely dishonest and unusually willing to violate norms if not laws to get what he wants, or that a cabal of thousands of government officials and members of the media are acting in concert to keep him out of the White House — his base is already deeply invested in the latter. It’s self-reinforcing, in fact; it’s easier to quickly slot any new allegations into the everyone-against-Trump frame than it is to consider that you’ve spent seven years being wrong about him.

Then there’s the next tier, those who want to exploit his base. This includes most major Republican officials and a vast array of right-wing media voices.

Sometimes, that second group overlaps with the first; that is, people who want to tap into the economic and political power of his base really do accept Trump’s presentations about the challenges he faces. But a lot of them clearly understand that Trump is dishonest.

So why do they go along with it? Because those tens of millions of people take him at face value. That’s tens of millions of voters who will reward people who reinforce the everyone-against-Trump frame. Tens of millions of people who might contribute five bucks to the Donald Trump Defense Team or whatever. It’s a pool of people defined by a willingness to believe a real estate salesman’s false claims. What hustler wouldn’t see that as an opportunity?

Most interesting, really, is the third tier, that group of people who try to redirect Trump’s claims for their own purposes. This is a group of voices on the right that isn’t willing to give up credibility entirely by repeating obviously untrue claims that Trump makes but that still wants to tap into that robust Trump support. So they slap his assertions down onto a rhetorical anvil and remake them into something useful for themselves. The base doesn’t really mind, because these people end up nodding along with what everyone else has agreed to agree on. And Trump himself doesn’t care: Sometimes they give him a new angle, a new way to lure people into agreeing with him.

A good example of how these tiers work came in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. There were the voters easily convinced by Trump that the election was stolen. There were the opportunists, such as the “Stop the Steal” organizers or members of Congress, who agreed for fundraising or attention-seeking purposes. And then there was the cadre of people saying things such as, “well, it wasn’t stolen through fraud, really.” The people reshaping Trump’s argument to suggest that the election was simply rigged against him, for example.

After Thursday’s news of the federal indictment, all three tiers were easy to pick out. Those who quickly agreed that Trump was being unfairly targeted. The elected officials — and Trump’s competitors in the 2024 nominating contest! — echoing that same claim. The people suggesting that the real issue was that, say, this was a slippery slope for the politicization of law enforcement. Sure, the indictment wasn’t great, but here was the real issue.

We come back to Trump’s videotaped statement.

“I’m an innocent man. I’m an innocent person,” Trump said, something no one guilty of a crime has ever claimed previously. Then: “They had the Mueller hoax, the Mueller report, and that came out — no collusion after two-and-a-half years.”

This is the appeal to the base: You’ve bought into the idea that the investigation into Russian interference was a big hoax (which it was not), so now buy into this, too.

Then, at multiple points, he mentioned how he’d gotten “more votes than any sitting president in the history of our country by far,” a true statement that depends on population growth over time far more than actual support. This assertion was coupled with overstated references to how well he was doing in the polls.

To some extent, this is just aimed at reinforcing the idea (also presented multiple times) that the investigation is meant to keep him from being elected president in 2024. But it also serves as a reminder that he does, in fact, retain the support of millions of Americans who think that he is the best choice to serve as president. Any number of prominent voices in the right-wing media and politics rushed to defend him.

While many of his opponents for the Republican nomination are not explicitly doing so, they are being cautious about not seeming as though they’re siding with the Department of Justice or the Biden administration (which Trump’s allies are misleadingly blaming for the indictment). So they adopt lines such as this one, from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

This is not how justice should be pursued in our country.

The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards, and vendetta politics.

It’s time to move beyond the endless drama and distractions.

— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) June 9, 2023

“They come after Donald Trump, weaponizing the Justice Department, weaponizing the FBI,” Trump said in his video statement. “We can’t let this continue to go on because it’s ripping our country to shreds.” Trump mentioned Trump, but Haley’s statement — carefully not mentioning him — is otherwise similar.

This pattern, these layers, are not new. They did not spring into being in the past 24 hours; in fact, that they still exist is dependent to some extent on their being years old.

Nor is it new that they are existentially important to Trump. If the base sours on him, the second-order efforts to wring money and power from the base fades, too. If that happens, there’s not much value in trying to repurpose Trump’s arguments, either, because there’s no need to do so. The system collapses.

So Trump, first thing after revealing that he’s been indicted, does what no lawyer would probably advise: offers a lengthy discussion of his view of the situation. Experience has taught him that it’s a good way to send signals to his supporters — and to bolster the multitiered structural support on which his political viability depends.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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