Donald Trump’s team plans to use his sexual abuse verdict to boost his campaign war chest, painting the 2024 Republican frontrunner as the victim of a political smear campaign.
Mr Trump, 76, was expected to aggressively challenge his accuser E Jean Carroll’s claims before his appearance in the critical state of Iowa was unexpectedly cancelled on Saturday night.
Mr Trump had planned for a showdown against his Republican nemesis, Ron DeSantis, in the state, before a tornado warning forced the former president to cancel his rally.
Mr Trump was found liable by a civil jury for the sexual battery of Ms Caroll in the mid-1990s in a department store changing room by a New York jury this week. The former president was ordered to pay $5 million (£4 million)in damages.
Despite also being found to have defamed Ms Carroll for calling her a “con job”, Mr Trump’s backers say he will ramp up his verbal attacks on the former advice columnist and portray her as a Democratic operative.
A sexual abuse verdict may well be expected to derail most presidential campaigns, but Mr Trump’s team are optimistic they can use the civil case’s outcome to fire up his base.
His circle of advisers are planning to fundraise from the lawsuit, and are considering sending out emails soliciting donations similar to those which brought in more than $12 million after he was criminally charged over hush money payments.
While aides privately conceded the Carroll lawsuit was “not good” for Mr Trump, they believe they can still capitalise financially by describing him as the victim of a left-wing plot to scupper his White House return.
Republican operatives in Iowa, the first state to vote in the party’s primary contest, said the lawsuit had not done any material harm among the party faithful.
Gloria Mazza, chair of the influential Polk County GOP, declined to say which Republican candidate she was backing but suggested the New York lawsuit was low on the priority list for voters in a farming-heavy state in the heart of the Corn Belt.
“I can tune that noise out,” she said. However, Ms Mazza warned the Trump campaign should not take Iowa for granted.
She said: “We’ve never had a president run again after losing a seat. So his name is obviously known, but that doesn’t mean that other candidates aren’t as qualified and won’t make inroads.”
One Iowa Republican close to the state party said the sexual assault verdict could actually work against Democrats.
“Anything that’s been thrown at Trump is lumped into a larger effort [by Democrats] to hit Trump in the eyes of Republican voters,” the source said.
They added: “It’s like a bad Ben Stiller movie: I’m gonna break up my best friend and his girlfriend, but then they just get closer together. And it’s so terrible.”
Mr Trump, who leads the Republican field by a sizeable margin, had intensified his rivalry with Mr DeSantis by planning to be in Iowa on the same day before bad weather forced a cancellation.
Mr DeSantis was flipping burgers with potential caucus goers in the northwest of the state on Saturday, while Mr Trump’s flight from Mar-a-Lago was grounded. “Please seek shelter,” Mr Trump told his rally goers.
Sources close to the 44-year-old say the governor is considering formally challenging Mr Trump for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination as soon as within the next fortnight.
They believe the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the 2024 contest, represent a “make-or-break” moment for both candidates.
Polls suggest Mr DeSantis will be Mr Trump’s strongest rival. But the Florida governor has yet to prove himself on the national stage, and defeat in Iowa could cripple the early enthusiasm around his bid.
As Mr DeSantis is speaking in Cedar Rapids on Saturday evening, Mr Trump will be preparing to address thousands of supporters roughly 100 miles away in central Des Moines.
Trump campaign staff said the rally was aimed at ramping up enthusiasm among his supporters in the critical state, as well as identifying volunteers to boost turnout in next year’s caucuses.
The threatening grey sky and muddy grass at the Water Works Park in Des Moines did little to dampen the spirits of Trump supporters who had arrived more than 12 hours before their hero was due to take the stage.
Christena Kincaid, a 42-year-old TikTok streamer from Michigan, said Ms Carroll’s lawsuit was “bogus”. Wearing a bright red cap reading, “TRUMP WAS RIGHT”, Ms Kincaid said: “They keep coming for him but nothing stops him. It makes us fight harder for him.”
Ms Kincaid said she saw attack billboards by a DeSantis-aligned group on her way into the site of the Trump rally, but she thought the Florida governor was “wasting his time”. “This is Trump’s country,” she said.
Betty, 43, said she had come all the way from Florida to see her favourite president. Like Ms Kincaid, she believes this week’s lawsuit was the product of “a Hocus Pocus, kangaroo court”.
“This is a 30-year-old case with very little evidence,” she said, adding that even Democrats believed Mr Trump was being unfairly targeted.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump administration official who remains in close contact with his campaign, said current polling indicated Mr Trump had emerged “unscathed” from the sexual abuse verdict.
He added that “few” among the Republican primary electorate “believed” Ms Carroll’s claims, or “are even thinking about it”.
“One problematic demographic [for Mr Trump] is suburban women,” he said, adding, “it’s hard to see how it could get more difficult” after the sexual abuse verdict.
“I think their plans to go after it are sound. I don’t think the Carroll lawsuit changes that at all,” he said.