BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Donald Trump is seeking to present the next election as a stark choice: whether to return to power a twice-impeached, twice-indicted former president so that he can beat his prosecution and exact revenge on his political opponents.

Since his indictment last week on charges of mishandling classified materials, Trump has redefined the stakes of his campaign in increasingly dire terms, calling his prosecution “the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country,” and arguing, “we no longer have a democracy.”

Seven months after he launched his campaign amid questions in the party about the direction and potency of his bid, the implications of Trump’s third straight White House run have become clearer as he comes under growing legal peril. Although he makes sure to tie up his fate with that of the country and his MAGA movement, he is equally clear about what he stands to lose: his own personal freedom.

Trump faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge against him, though he has misleadingly suggested he could face a much longer period of incarceration. More broadly, he has begun staking out a legal and political defense that relies on misrepresentations of facts and law.

“They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom,” Trump told supporters gathered Tuesday at his golf club here after returning from his arraignment in Miami. “They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you. And I am the only one that can save this nation because you know they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you. And I just happened to be standing in their way. And I will never be moving.”

Trump is also describing his campaign as a quest for retribution against President Biden, promising, if returned to the White House, to install a special counsel to investigate Biden and his family. He is not only attacking his prosecution as politically motivated — part of what he alleges without evidence is a years-long “illegal psychological warfare campaign” — but asserting a two-tiered justice system being “weaponized” against conservatives. Biden recently said he has “never once” suggested to Justice Department officials “what they should do or not do relative to bringing a charge or not bringing a charge.”

In the process, Trump is now determinedly delegitimizing the legal system, as he has tried to do in the past with public health measures, the intelligence community, elections and other people or agencies he views as opposing him. Experts on extremism have raised alarms about the potential for violence stemming from rhetoric that demonizes law enforcement and in some cases encourages Trump supporters to resist, even as concerns about outbreaks of violence in Miami did not materialize.

“Donald Trump deliberately framed this absurd standoff with the government of the United States to prove that he could still stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters,” said J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge appointed by George H.W. Bush who testified to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that Trump and his movement remained a “clear and present danger to American democracy.” He added, “It’s a sad commentary on our country that we will have to await time to tell whether he is right.”

As Trump and fellow Republicans rally around the “weaponization” theme, there are signs that his supporters are already internalizing the message.

“I will support him to my grave. I would take a bullet for him. He’s innocent, this is bulls—, and we will win,” Tina Gable, a contractor from West Palm Beach, Fla., said at a meeting of a pro-Trump club Monday. “Our nation has been under attack and we’ve had blinders on. And he woke us all up and said ‘Hey this is what they’re doing.’ And then when we went to look for ourselves, we said ‘That’s right, they are,’ and we started waking up our friends and our families.”

William Oberholtzer, a GOP activist who owns a mini golf course in Gainesville, Ga., said: “The normal guy on the street is in deep sh– if they can indict him and continue to harass him. All government agencies have been politicized. The FBI shouldn’t be in existence. It’s out of control.”

Even as Trump has built a wide polling lead in the GOP primary, some Republicans have voiced concerns his electability could be hurt by the legal clouds hovering over his campaign. The prospect of future indictments leaves more uncertainty about the race.

“Most of us, myself included, think the indictment is partisan,” said Jason Shepherd, a former chairman of the Cobb County, Ga., Republican Party. Still, he added of Trump, “It’s a distraction and a drain. He needs to be fighting these charges and probably needs to back away from his campaign.”

Surveys show a stark and steady decline in Republicans’ views of the FBI since the start of Trump’s presidency. This spring, the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of the FBI and 50 percent viewed the Justice Department unfavorably, compared with 38 percent and 40 percent, respectively, with favorable views.

Republican politicians and right-wing commentators have talked about “weaponization” 20 times more often in spring 2023 than in spring 2022, according to a Washington Post analysis of more than a thousand influencers’ social media posts, podcasts and television appearances. Use of the term spiked after the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last August, inspiring a supporter to attack an FBI field office in Cincinnati. A Fox News chyron on Tuesday night referred to Biden as a “wannabe dictator” who had “his political rival arrested.” Even Republican candidates criticizing Trump’s actions used stronger invective about the government’s actions than Trump’s.

While other Republicans have often attacked the Justice Department for scrutinizing disruptions at school board meetings and abortion clinics as part of a larger sweep of “weaponization,” the charges against Trump have made it harder for them to avoid mentioning the former president in the same breath.

Trump’s leading rival for the 2024 GOP nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is now making “weaponization” central to his own campaign. He has accused the Justice Department of applying a double standard to charging Trump but not Hunter Biden — who has faced an investigation in which prosecutors have not yet announced their findings — or Hillary Clinton, and pledged as president to replace the FBI director and downsize the Justice Department.

“Here’s the thing: There’s obviously your high-profile examples, but there are examples of ordinary people who may not get the same headlines,” DeSantis said in a speech in North Carolina on Saturday. Other Republicans running against Trump have said they are inclined to pardon him.

“There’s no oxygen for anything else or anyone else. That’s an environment where he thrives,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told reporters Tuesday night. Trump’s speech, Cheung said, “laid down a marker of how he wants to frame the entire case.”

One Trump adviser was blunter, saying the former president is now “running for his freedom.”

Trump advisers said they want to use the prospect of him spending decades in prison as a way to bring out voters, and small-dollar donors.

“We do our best when he’s the victim,” said one longtime fundraising consultant for Trump, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. The campaign said it raised $4.5 million online and $2.1 million at an in-person fundraiser here since the indictment. Advisers said to expect his slashing message against the FBI and Justice Department to be a sizable part of his campaign and that he becomes most animated when talking about it and receives the most cheering. But it will not be his entire focus, they said.

“Those are points we’ll continue to make going forward, but it hasn’t been the only thing he’s talked about since the beginning,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser. “There are other things he’ll also talk about. It’s not just a single issue.”

Trump will try to differentiate rank-and-file law enforcement from his attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department, claiming that Biden and the “deep state” are out to get him, according to an adviser. “He wants to create a wedge,” the adviser said. “He will still need to say he’s pro-police.”

Trump has long presented his candidacy as an insurgency against a corrupt establishment bent on keeping him and his supporters down. (At one point on Tuesday night, he referred to his latest indictment as another “impeachment.”) But the specter of actual jail time adds new immediacy and urgency to those old allegations.

“If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me,” Trump said Tuesday, disparaging those investigating and prosecuting him. “They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings, and even future Republican candidates, which they do. We must end it permanently, and we must end it immediately.” There is no evidence that federal law enforcement is doing that.

The specific allegations against Trump — indictments for hush money payments before the 2016 election and mishandling classified materials, as well as ongoing investigations into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election — are for conduct that could involve only a former president. Still, as Trump baselessly accuses the FBI of planting evidence and claims prosecutors are politically motivated, he is showing success in convincing supporters that they could be equally vulnerable to “weaponized” law enforcement based on different kinds of spurious charges.

Larry Prince, 79, who attended a convention in North Carolina where Trump spoke on Saturday, said the recording of the former president showing off classified documents that was referenced in the indictment could be the work of artificial intelligence. Another supporter there, 19-year-old Cody Miller, predicted riots if Trump gets prison time in the Justice Department’s case against him.

“Nothing is going to stick,” said Kevin Shinault, 65, a longtime school coach who wore a bright red MAGA hat and a blue shirt that said ULTRA MAGA. “We don’t trust the media. We don’t trust the criminal justice system. … We don’t trust the recording no more than we trust voting by machine or voting by mail.”

Dawsey reported from Washington. Wells reported from West Palm Beach, Fla., and Miami. Knowles reported from Greensboro, N.C. Jeremy Merrill, Scott Clement and Perry Stein in Washington contributed to this report.

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