CNN  — 

Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail Saturday, accompanied by indicted aide Walt Nauta, as the former president cast his own federal indictment as “election interference” and told Georgia Republicans it represented an abuse of power by the Biden administration.

“This is a political hit job. Republicans are treated far different at the Justice Department than Democrats,” said Trump, who offered no evidence for his claims at a state GOP convention in Columbus.

The remarks were his first public response since the DOJ unsealed its indictment laying out the government’s case that the former president and an aide mishandled classified documents.

Trump aide Walt Nauta, who was indicted alongside the former president, is seen on the tarmac with Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in Columbus, Georgia, on June 10, 2023.

Trump, who is seen as the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, faces a total of 37 counts, including 31 counts of willful retention of national defense information. Nauta, the Trump “body man” or personal aide, who is regularly at the former president’s side, faces six counts, including several charges related to obstruction and concealment.

In a roughly 80-minute speech in Georgia, Trump denied any wrongdoing and described the probe as “a sad day for the country.”

“Our people are angry,” he said of his second indictment in less than three months, with investigations into election interference efforts in Georgia and his actions surrounding January 6, 2021, in Washington threatening to pose further legal troubles.

01:52 - Source: CNN
Why Trump's comparison to Biden's 1,850 boxes is a false equivalency

Trump told the Georgia audience that any other Republican at the top of the party’s 2024 ticket would face similar scrutiny and legal challenges.

“Somebody else? They’re not going to withstand that fire,” he said.

The former president expanded on that message during remarks at the North Carolina GOP convention in Greensboro later Saturday.

“I stand before you today as the only candidate who has what it takes to smash this corrupt system and to truly drain the swamp,” Trump said, “and I’m the only one that they don’t want to do it.”

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Multiple battles

Saturday’s speeches in Georgia and North Carolina demonstrated how Trump is responding – with fiery political attacks on Biden’s Justice Department in front of friendly audiences – as he mounts battles on both the political and legal fronts.

“The ridiculous and baseless indictment of me by the Biden administration’s weaponized department of injustice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country,” the former president said.

Trump’s remarks were reminiscent of his first rally after last summer’s FBI search of his Mar-A-Lago estate. Speaking to supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in September, Trump accused Biden of weaponizing federal law enforcement in what he said was “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history.”

Megan Varner/Reuters
Trump speaks in Columbus, Georgia, on June 10, 2023.

The former president is scheduled to appear Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Miami, where he will be read the charges against him. He told Politico on Saturday that he doesn’t anticipate taking a plea deal if offered one and again vowed to stay in the 2024 race, even if convicted.

On Saturday in Georgia, he again described special counsel Jack Smith as “deranged” and said the case against him was a “joke.”

Smith spoke publicly on Friday at the Justice Department following the unsealing of the indictment and said his office would seek a “speedy trial.” He urged Americans to read the indictment in full to understand the “gravity of the crimes charged.”

News of Trump’s indictment Thursday was met at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey with a belief that he would benefit politically as conservatives rallied around him.

Trump spent Friday morning in Bedminster playing golf with Florida Rep. Carlos Gimenez as his allies made rounds of phone calls to shore up support for the former president.

After the indictment was unsealed Friday, concern began to settle in, a source familiar with the mood at Bedminster told CNN, as Trump aides began to acknowledge the legal implications. His team still thinks Trump will likely benefit politically – at least in the short term – the source said, but aides have grown more wary of how the indictment will play out legally.

Trump has long avoided legal culpability in his personal, professional and political lives. He has settled a number of private civil lawsuits through the years and paid his way out of disputes concerning the Trump Organization. As president, he was twice impeached by the Democratic-led House but avoided conviction by the Senate.

But after leaving office, the Justice Department’s criminal investigations into the alleged retention of classified information at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election cast dark clouds over the former president. Smith’s investigation into January 6, 2021, and efforts to overturn the election is still ongoing.

In March, the Manhattan district attorney indicted Trump on charges related to hush-money payments to a former adult star. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to announce in August whether there are any charges in her investigation into attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election in the state.

On Saturday, Trump railed against Willis’ investigation, saying she was “coming after me over a perfect phone call.”

“I had every right to complain that the election in Georgia was in my opinion rigged,” the former president said.

Trump in 2021 pushed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, to “find” votes to overturn the election results after he narrowly lost the state to Biden.

Trump has tossed out debunked conspiracy theories over the Georgia election since his loss. The state certified its election results three times under Raffensperger’s leadership and found no mass voter fraud.

Rivals rally behind Trump, mostly

On the campaign trail, many of Trump’s Republican presidential rivals responded to the news of his indictment by attacking the Justice Department – another indication that they see advantage among conservative primary voters in defending a former president who remains popular with the party’s base.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday accused the DOJ of “weaponization of federal law enforcement” while vowing, if elected president, to “bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to “stop hiding behind the special counsel and stand before the American people” to explain “this unprecedented action.”

“We also need to hear the former president’s defense so that each of us can make our own judgment,” Pence told attendees at the North Carolina GOP convention in Greensboro.

The former vice president urged the audience to “be patient” as the justice system runs its course and to pray for Trump and his family.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s United Nations ambassador, characterized the indictment as “prosecutorial overreach” in a statement Friday, adding that it was time to move “beyond the endless drama and distractions.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who entered the GOP race earlier this week, said Saturday that Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents is not something voters want to spend their time on.

“When we’re on the road in Iowa the last two days and here in New Hampshire talking about the economy, energy policy, national security – those are the things that are hitting every American every single day,” Burgum told Fox News.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another onetime ally and close adviser to Trump who has emerged as his chief critic in the 2024 race, described the details of the indictment as “damning.”

“This is irresponsible conduct,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Friday, adding that “the conduct that Donald Trump engaged in was completely self-inflicted.”

“The bigger issue for our country is, is this the type of conduct that we want from someone who wants to be president of the United States?” Christie said.

Another Trump critic, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said the former president should drop out of the race “for the good of the country.”

“This is unprecedented that we have a former president criminally charged for mishandling classified information, for obstruction of justice. This obviously will be an issue during the campaign,” Hutchinson told Tapper on Friday in a separate interview.

“For the sake of the country, he doesn’t need this distraction. The country doesn’t need this distraction, as well.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Kristen Holmes, Kate Sullivan, Steve Contorno, Kimberly Berryman, Alayna Treene, Paula Reid, Jeremy Herb, Evan Perez, Gregory Krieg, Veronica Stracqualursi, Adrienne Winston, Kit Maher, Daniel Dale and Sydney Kashiwagi contributed to this report.