SARASOTA, Fla. (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday condemned New York prosecutors for bringing charges against his namesake company and longtime financial adviser, using a campaign-style rally to air a host of grievances.
“It’s really called prosecutorial misconduct. It’s a terrible, terrible thing,” Trump told thousands of supporters gathered outdoors in Sarasota, Florida.
The Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to what a New York prosecutor called a “sweeping and audacious” tax fraud, arising from a probe into Trump’s business and its practices.
Weisselberg and other executives were accused of receiving perks and benefits such as rent-free apartments and leased cars, without reporting them properly on their tax returns. The outcome of the investigations and other lawsuits facing Trump could impact whether he decides to run again for president in 2024.
“They’ve mobilized every power of government to come after me, my family, my wonderful employees and my company solely because of politics,” Trump told the crowd.
The rally was billed as a Fourth of July celebration with fireworks, the latest in a series of appearances as the former president tries to keep Republicans’ focus on him.
Trump used his speech to denounce the policies of his successor, Democratic President Joe Biden, and repeat his false claim that he lost the 2020 election due to fraud.
He urged his supporters to back his allies in their midterm campaigns as Republicans fight to take back control of Congress from the Democratic Party next year.
Trump dwelt heavily on Biden’s policies along the U.S. border with Mexico and rising crime, two issues that Republicans hope to use to their advantage in the 2022 midterm elections.
Trump’s image took a beating after the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters. But some 53% of Republicans believe Trump won last year’s election and blame his loss on illegal voting, and one quarter of the overall public agreed Trump won, a May 17-19 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.
BUILDUP TO 2024
Trump, 75, has dangled the possibility of running for president again in 2024, and his latest rallies mark an effort to keep his base energized and in his camp.
“We are looking at the election, more than looking at it,” said Trump of 2024, prompting cheers from the Sarasota crowd.
Many Republicans see an appealing option for a 2024 party nominee in Florida’s 42-year-old governor, Ron DeSantis. A longtime Trump ally, DeSantis has been at the forefront of Republican-led fights against strict anti-coronavirus lockdowns, racial justice protests and expanded ballot access.
In a straw poll of potential 2024 candidates at a conservative conference in Denver in June, DeSantis finished ahead of Trump, 74% to 71%.
DeSantis’ office has said the governor is focused on winning re-election in Florida next year, not aspiring to national office.
Lindsay Gordon, a 35-year-old Sarasota resident who works in retail, said it was her third time attending a Trump rally and she was excited to show her support for the former president. She said she hopes Trump runs again, but thought DeSantis might be a better, less-polarizing alternative.
“I think DeSantis would probably have a better opportunity seeing as he’s younger,” Gordon said. “Because he’s still new and fresh there’s still a chance to get people to understand where he’s coming from. There isn’t as much of this negativity.”
DeSantis did not attend Trump’s rally. A spokesperson said he was spending the weekend in Surfside, Florida, where rescuers have spent more than a week searching the rubble of a condo building collapse that killed at least 24 people and left scores missing.
During his speech at the rally, which lasted about 90 minutes, Trump called out by name a number of Republican politicians who he described as warriors on his behalf, including embattled U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz.
Trump did not mention DeSantis, but told Newsmax in an interview backstage that he and DeSantis had “mutually agreed” that the governor should continue to assist with the rescue and recovery operation in Surfside.
“I told him you should stay there,” said Trump.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Sarasota, Florida; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Daniel Wallis)