Trump, defiant over legal woes, shares Iowa stage with DeSantis

former President Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump greets guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on July 28, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. Thirteen Republican presidential candidates were scheduled to speak at the event.

Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP

Former US president Donald Trump -- who has pledged to pursue his White House bid if convicted and sentenced in one of the cases engulfing his comeback bid -- on Friday shared a stage with his Republican rivals for the first time in Iowa.

Trump's appearance at the party's Lincoln Dinner fundraiser came as he faced new charges over his handling of classified government documents -- and a possible fresh indictment over his alleged efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election.

The format of the Lincoln Dinner -- 10 minutes for each candidate -- kept the fireworks to a minimum, but the frontrunner did not shy away from telling the attendees what he thought of his main challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

"I wouldn’t take a chance on that one," Trump said after offering a barrage of poll data suggesting he would easily defeat incumbent President Joe Biden while DeSantis would lose against the veteran Democrat.

Trump offered a rapid-fire summary of his achievements while in office, from appointing three conservative-leaning Supreme Court justices to withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, and only briefly alluded to his legal woes.

"If I weren't running, I would have nobody coming after me," the 77-year-old said.

For his part, DeSantis stuck to his usual stump speech, and did not use the opportunity to take a swipe at Trump.

"The time for excuses is over. We must get the job done. I will get the job done," he told attendees in Des Moines.

'It wouldn't stop me'

Earlier in the day, Trump used a radio interview to insist his legal woes would not derail his White House bid.

Asked by radio host John Fredericks if being sentenced would stop his 2024 campaign, Trump quickly responded: "Not at all. There's nothing in the Constitution to say that it could."

"And even the radical left crazies are saying not at all, that wouldn't stop (me) -- and it wouldn't stop me, either," he added. "These people are sick. What they are doing is absolutely horrible."

The twice-impeached former president was first indicted in the classified documents case last month, accused of endangering national security by holding onto top secret nuclear and defense information after leaving the White House.

The Justice Department added charges Thursday to its more than three dozen counts against Trump, who was found by a jury in a civil trial in May to have raped a writer in Manhattan in the 1990s.

Trump is also facing dozens of felony charges in a case involving hush money payments to a porn star in New York and is bracing for indictment in separate state and federal investigations into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.  

In a major development Thursday in the documents probe, Special Counsel Jack Smith alleged that Trump, who is scheduled to go on trial at the height of the campaign in March and May next year, asked a worker at his beachfront estate in Florida to delete surveillance footage to obstruct investigators.

Trump, who denies all wrongdoing, was also charged with illegally retaining national defense information over a document he is accused of showing to journalists at his New Jersey golf club.

He unleashed a torrent of invective loaded with false accusations against the government, Biden and other top Democrats on his social media platform. 

He also called for Smith "and his Thug Prosecutors" to be jailed alongside Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Nazi imagery

DeSantis is in a campaign lull -- the 44-year-old has seen Trump's lead widen from 13 points in February to 34 points now, as he has failed to connect with voters and has been beset by a series of largely self-inflicted controversies.

His team was forced this week to fire a staffer who promoted a video featuring Nazi imagery, and the candidate sparked outrage by suggesting he would pick anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to lead his public health policy.

Aides announced they were firing a third of the campaign's staff as they acknowledged wild overspending, and DeSantis earned further criticism as he defended his state's heavily criticized new curriculum teaching the benefits of slavery.

With Iowa and then New Hampshire voters due to pick their favored Republican nominee in six months, most of the candidates have been camped out in those states, attending campaign events daily.

Other speakers at the Lincoln Dinner included Trump's vice president Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.