Donald Trump was pulling up to his plane at LaGuardia Airport, set to travel to Nevada for a campaign rally Saturday, when the news came: A Manhattan jury said the former president should pay the writer E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million for defaming her.
Friday’s verdict capped off a week in which Trump had finished his sweep of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and wanted to shift his focus to President Joe Biden.
It was a vivid reminder that with a third consecutive Republican nomination within reach, Trump is fighting battles on several other fronts — including federal and state courtrooms, and an increasingly bitter Republican primary race against former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Both Trump and Biden are treating this weekend as the opening salvo of the general election, traveling to states where they are assured of winning their parties’ early-February nominating contests — Trump in Nevada, Biden in South Carolina — as they move closer to a rematch of their 2020 race.
Haley is also in South Carolina, where she’ll hold a pair of weekend events as she mounts a monthlong stand as Trump’s lone remaining Republican primary rival ahead of the Palmetto State’s February 24 primary.
Trump spent the week trying to turn the courtroom into a campaign space — appearing in person several times even though he was not required to do so; taking the stand for only a few minutes; and leaving before a verdict was announced, allowing his lawyer, Alina Habba, to speak to the news cameras gathered there on his behalf.
“Our Legal System is out of control, and being used as a Political Weapon. They have taken away all First Amendment Rights. THIS IS NOT AMERICA!” Trump said Friday on his social media network Truth Social.
Through the 2024 Republican primary, Trump’s legal challenges — including federal and state charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election — have largely rallied conservatives to his side.
Haley, though, has infuriated the former president in recent days, as she has insisted on remaining in the GOP race despite finishing 11 points behind Trump in New Hampshire.
“Donald Trump wants to be the presumptive Republican nominee and we’re talking about $83 million in damages,” Haley said Friday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, following news of the Carroll verdict. “We’re not talking about fixing the border. We’re not talking about tackling inflation. America can do better than Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”
After nearly a year of largely avoiding direct confrontation with Trump, Haley has increasingly seized on Trump’s legal battles and his public remarks — including an angry speech Tuesday night after his win in New Hampshire — to make the case that he would lose in November.
With her two-for-one message attacking the ages of Trump (who will be 78 on Election Day) and Biden (who will be 81), and her questioning of Trump’s mental acuity, Haley has become a vessel for the weaknesses of both men.
Her barbs at the former president have escalated in recent days — and she is leveling them in front of conservative audiences that have rallied behind him in the wake of the civil trials and criminal charges he has faced.
In a Fox News interview Friday, Haley called Trump “totally unhinged” and said he has alienated the moderates and independents the party will need to defeat Biden.
“I will win Republicans, but also guess who else I win? I win moderates and independents, which he doesn’t. That’s why he lost in 2018. That’s why he lost 2020. That’s why he lost 2022,” she said, referring to the GOP’s disappointing recent midterm performances and Trump’s loss to Biden.
Haley, whom Trump tapped as his US ambassador to the United Nations, remains a long shot to win the GOP nomination — with polls showing her trailing far behind Trump in her home state, and some donors increasingly reluctant to give to her efforts after Trump declared on Truth Social that they would be exiled from his political movement for doing so.
However, Haley is channeling the frustrations of a segment of the Republican Party — highlighting the political costs the party has paid in recent elections for its allegiance to Trump.
“We need to make sure that we’re challenging him and working to defeat him at every step of the way. And right now, Nikki Haley is in this fight, and I think she ought to stay in it,” former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who was ousted from her House seat by a Trump-backed challenger in a 2022 primary, said Thursday on the liberal “Pod Save America” podcast.
Haley has two weekend rallies planned in her home state: one Saturday in Mauldin and one Sunday in Conway.
Then, she is set to begin an important week of fundraising, with multiple fundraisers scheduled for New York on Monday followed by events in Palm Beach and Miami on Wednesday. Over the course of the next three and a half weeks, Haley’s campaign has planned at least 13 fundraisers in five states: New York, Florida, California, South Carolina and Texas.
Her campaign has touted bringing in $2.6 million in donations since the polls closed in New Hampshire, but there are also real questions about her ability to keep donors on her side with questions about her campaign’s path ahead.
SFA Fund, the main super PAC supporting Haley’s presidential campaign, has begun booking airtime in South Carolina, another signal that the fight for the GOP presidential nomination could drag on.
According to AdImpact data, on Friday, SFA Fund began booking TV airtime over the next week in the Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Charlotte media markets. So far, the group has spent just about $6,700, but in a memo announcing its haul of $50 million during the second half of last year, the group said it planned to spend $1 million on its initial South Carolina ad buy — a clear indication much more spending is likely to come soon.
Haley’s campaign, meanwhile, says it will spend up to $4 million on its first major ad buy in the state, while another outside group backing her, Americans For Prosperity Action, has already spent more than $3 million advertising there in support of Haley.
Nevada is actually the next state to vote in the GOP nominating process — with caucuses scheduled for February 8. But Trump is virtually assured of sweeping the state’s 26 delegates, because Haley won’t be on the ballot.
That’s because two days earlier, Nevada is also holding a state-run primary — a requirement under a 2021 state law. Haley and several other former Republican presidential contenders will appear on the primary ballot. However, the state GOP, which is controlled by Trump loyalists, opted to award its delegates through state party-run caucuses, instead.
For Trump, the Nevada visit may be geared more toward the general election. Nevada, with six Electoral College votes, is expected to be a presidential battleground this fall. Democrats have won every presidential race in the Silver State since 2008 and made large inroads down-ballot in 2018 by flipping a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion. But Republicans won back the governorship in 2022, and Democrats face a tough fight defending that Senate seat this fall.
On Friday night, as he prepared to travel to Nevada, Trump railed against the verdict on Truth Social, saying, “Our Judicial System is Broken and Unfair!”
The criminal charges he has faced – including over alleged hush money payments in New York; his actions after the 2020 election in Georgia; and his alleged hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort and his efforts to subvert the 2020 election – have largely served to rally Republicans to the former president’s defense through the GOP primary.
However, as the general election approaches, it’s not clear whether moderates and independents will similarly see those court battles as politically motivated attacks on conservatives.
Biden’s South Carolina trip — his second this month — comes a week before the state’s February 3 primary officially kicks off the Democratic nominating process, with early voting already underway.
It’s the state’s first time in that role, after the Democratic National Committee overhauled its primary schedule with Biden’s backing to elevate the Palmetto State — in part because its much larger Black population makes it more representative of the party’s diverse base than Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that for decades have voted first. (New Hampshire scheduled its primary first anyway, prompting the DNC to strip the state of its delegates. Biden still won via write-in votes.)
South Carolina is also the state where Biden, backed by influential Rep. Jim Clyburn, notched his first victory of the 2020 Democratic primary and began his march to the party’s nomination.
Biden is set to celebrate the state’s first-in-the-nation status at a party dinner Saturday evening in Columbia.
“It’s because of this congregation and the Black community of South Carolina – and it’s not an exaggeration – and Jim Clyburn – that I stand here today as your president. And I’ve done my best to honor your trust,” the president said earlier this month at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Though the state isn’t expected to be competitive in November, South Carolina’s primary will pose a key early test of whether Biden has maintained his strength with Black voters, a key coalition that propelled him to victory in 2020.
And while he’s celebrating the first contest of the Democratic primary season Saturday night, Biden’s team is already looking ahead to the general election rematch with Trump, going on the offensive on issues such as reproductive rights and the economy in battleground states this week as it seeks to draw a contrast with Biden’s predecessor.
Biden will “drive home the stark choice – particularly for communities of color – voters will face this November between his record of delivering for working families and Donald Trump’s extreme, chaotic and divisive record that was a disaster for Black communities,” a Biden campaign official said.
The Biden campaign has long been preparing for Trump to win the nomination, but it is acutely aware of polling reflecting Haley’s strength over Biden in a one-on-one matchup.
And behind closed doors, the Biden campaign is cheering Haley’s decision to stay in the race as they monitor Trump lashing out at the former South Carolina governor. It has been welcome news for the president’s reelection team to see Haley prolong the Republican contest and force the Trump campaign to use its resources and time to attack her.
“Go forth and prosper,” one Biden campaign official said, describing the team’s delight in seeing the Trump-Haley feud continue.
CNN’s Betsy Klein, Kylie Atwood, Jeff Zeleny, Fredreka Schouten, Ebony Davis, MJ Lee, Kristen Holmes, Kate Sullivan, Arlette Saenz and David Wright contributed to this report.