Former President Donald Trump gave a wave and a signature thumbs up to crowds outside the federal courthouse in downtown Miami after pleading not guilty to criminal charges. He then headed to a local Cuban restaurant where he warmly greeted waiting supporters in a camera-ready scene that resembled a campaign stop.
In the largely unseen moments on Tuesday — his attorney entering his plea, Trump sitting grim-faced with arms folded across his chest — the gravity of being the first former president charged with a federal crime was apparent.
In the seen moments, broadcast around the world in real-time, there was a long motorcade, flag-waving supporters and a smaller number of anti-Trump protesters outside the courthouse.
Then the former president and 2024 candidate had a detour in mind, to a popular Cuban restaurant where he was all smiles, greeted by supporters, prayed over by a rabbi and shadowed by his personal aide, who also has been charged in the case.
Trump has long been adroit at creating his own portrait of events, and the restaurant stop was an effort at counter-programming as he campaigns again for president and maintains that he has been unfairly targeted by political rivals.
The international attention and screaming crowds were another sign of the extraordinary nature of the day’s events and the person at the center of it all. A defendant like no other, Trump was the first former president to appear before a federal judge on criminal charges. He also is leading the Republican field for the 2024 presidential nomination, holding his status as frontrunner even as he has faced other these and other legal troubles.
Hardly any of those gathered in Miami interacted with Trump, if they saw him at all through the window of his SUV. He arrived as part of a motorcade that entered the courthouse garage for his hearing on felony charges. The former president also left in the SUV with the windows rolled up before heading to Versailles, a restaurant, coffee shop and bakery that is a required stop for politicians visiting Miami. There, the crowd serenaded him with the “Happy Birthday” song, one day before the former president’s 77th birthday.
“Some birthday! We’ve got a government that’s out of control,” Trump said.
Trump has been making frequent stops at local restaurants during his campaign trips, in part to contrast his easy rapport with his supporters with his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But Tuesday’s stop was different, aimed at showcasing Trump’s continued support from GOP voters and to signal that he remains unbowed by the indictments.
He then headed to the airport for his flight back to New Jersey aboard his personal jet and was expected to deliver remarks later Tuesday night.
Outside the Miami courthouse earlier in the day, security was tight, with police vehicles blocking a palm tree-lined breezeway and public entrance to the building. A helicopter passed overhead at times, and officers circled the perimeter on bicycles.
The scene included what is now a staple of a Trump appearance or rally. People selling T-shirts with Trump’s face in a mock mugshot, with large letters reading “NOT GUILTY,” others hawking hats, but also, fitting for Miami, mangoes.
Some waved Trump 2024 flags, supporting his bid for president. Another man, who opposes Trump, dressed in black-and-white prison stripes and held a sign reading “LOCK HIM UP.” At times, people shouted past each other, and small groups of pro-Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters squabbled, occasionally yelling obscenities at each other.
Domenic Santana, who showed up in the jailhouse uniform complete with handcuffs and a plastic ball and chain, said he “wanted to join the circus.”
Santana came to the U.S. as a child from Cuba and retired in Miami after decades operating an eatery in the New York area. The 61-year-old considers himself a political independent and says his mother and daughter voted for Trump.
“A fellow New Yorker can spot a rat a mile away,” he said. “Frankly, he should’ve been locked up ages ago.”
More typical, among the earliest arrivals outside the courthouse was the father-son duo of Florencio and Kevin Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. fifteen years ago as asylum seekers fleeing dictatorship in Cuba.
Wearing a shirt that read “Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president,” the younger Rodriguez, Kevin, said it was possible that Trump was guilty of illegally retaining classified documents.
But he questioned the fairness of the proceedings in light of what he said was prosecutors’ lax attitude toward President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — both of whom have also been accused of mishandling classified intelligence, though without any intention of hiding their actions.
“Even if he’s guilty, we will still support him,” Rodriguez said.
Among other Trump supporters in the crowd was Kari Lake, the failed GOP candidate for U.S. Senate from Arizona. Trump endorsed Lake last year, and she has been one of his most vocal allies.
Madelin Munilla, 67, who came to Miami a child when her parents fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba, carried a sign with a photo of Biden alongside leaders who had their opponents put in jail.
“This is what they do in Latin America,” she said.
Others came to counter the Trump supporters. Jack Kaplan, 68, drove two hours from Ft Pierce. Carrying a copy of the indictment affixed to a clipboard and a sign reading “Trump is Toast,” the retired car dealer said he’ll celebrate with a $1,400 bottle of Mouton Rothschild red wine if the former president is locked away.
“I’ve already got the bottle sitting in my wine cooler,” said Kaplan as a Trump supporter carrying a sign reading “Keep America Great” walked by. “I’m going to have a big party.”