Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to 37 charges Tuesday in a brief but historic court appearance following his arrest and processing on federal charges. (Sketch: Bill Hennessy)

(CNN) — Donald Trump went from courtroom to campaign trail in the blink of an eye on Tuesday, underscoring how the 2024 election – which should address the most pressing issues of the American people – has become a mere tool of his criminal defense strategy.

After scowling in crossed-arm silence as he became the first former president to be charged with crimes by the federal government, Trump quickly transitioned to a Cuban cafe in Miami where he lapped up the adulation of supporters singing “Happy Birthday.”

Later, at his golf club in New Jersey, the twice-impeached former president and the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination falsely presented himself as a blameless victim of a tyrannical government, ignoring the 37 federal charges against him related to alleged mishandling of classified documents.

“Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country. Very sad thing to watch, a corrupt sitting president had his top political opponent arrested on fake and fabricated charges of which he and numerous other presidents would be guilty, right in the middle of a presidential election in which he’s losing very badly,” Trump said, once again ignoring the facts.

The ex-president, who tried to steal the 2020 election, accused President Joe Biden and a band of misfits and Marxists of election interference and of mounting a political persecution typical of a fascist or communist nation. He also falsely insisted he had to the right to keep secret documents that were the property of the US government.

His remarks were among the most chilling and demagogic ever uttered by a major figure in modern American history. And on a somber day in the nation’s story, they said everything about the former president and the divisive spectacle ahead as he runs for the White House under the shadow of two criminal indictments to which he has pleaded not guilty – with more possibly to come.

Trump’s defiance reinforced the impression he views the law with contempt. By ignoring the gravity of a situation he created, he once again put immediate personal and political needs ahead of the national interest – a trend reflected in his haphazard storage of classified documents in a bathroom, ballroom and shower. The material included secrets about America’s nuclear program and key military plans and, according to the indictment, he allegedly obstructed government efforts to get them to safety.

Trump’s showmanship bolstered a strategy of putting his legal woes at the center of a campaign already rooted in claims he’s the blameless victim of a politicized justice system.

“Some birthday, we got a government that is out of control,” Trump was heard saying in the Cuban restaurant hours before turning 77. This is the kind of victimization theme that has long been at the center of Trump’s grievance-based populist appeal. He’s once again trying to delegitimize the institutions holding him to account, seeking to light a fire under GOP voters and even to shape an eventual jury pool in Florida.

But Tuesday’s political choreography showed this approach is more than a political strategy. It revealed a deeper, emerging reality about the 2024 campaign. Trump’s legal defense strategy is now entirely fused with his electoral one. His bid to regain the White House is no longer a mere political campaign but has now become about self-preservation. As his court battles grind on, his biggest aim appears to be recapturing the presidential authority that might give him the power to make his potential criminal liability – and even the threat of jail time, if convicted – go away.

“He’s not running to save America, he’s running to save himself, and if that means tearing down the judicial system and special counsel, he’ll do it,” CNN political commentator Van Jones said on “The Lead” on Tuesday.

This unprecedented domination of an American presidential election by a major candidate’s personal legal plight will have important implications for Trump and his opponents.

— It means that a third consecutive US presidential election will be tainted by investigations or allegations of criminal wrongdoing involving major candidates – following the Hillary Clinton email flap in 2016 and Trump’s false claims about voter fraud in 2020. If Trump becomes the 2024 GOP nominee, the cloud of criminality could linger over the election until November next year. This means that the democratic process is likely to absorb further blows to its credibility – at least in the eyes of millions of Trump supporters who buy his propaganda.

— Trump’s decision to make the entire Republican primary about his legal problems is a conundrum for GOP rivals who have largely failed to find a way to define themselves against the ex-president without alienating many of his supporters. The alleged offenses outlined in special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment are so grave that they require those circling the wagons around Trump to ignore potentially huge threats to national security posed by his lax storage of secret documents. The focus on Trump also makes it very hard for other candidates to shift the arguments of the campaign onto other themes GOP voters want addressed – including immigration and “woke” policies that they think are eroding traditional American culture.

— Trump is also putting some key party leaders in a bind as they rush to defend him. Some, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, condemned the indictment as an example of political persecution before even seeing the charges. This is hardly surprising. After all, scores of House Republicans voted not to certify Biden’s election win in January 2021 hours after Trump incited a mob to attack the US Capitol as he sought to stay in power after an election he lost.

But concern is fast growing among some GOP figures about the magnitude of the alleged offenses. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gingerly moved onto this political territory when she said this week that if the indictment against Trump is true, he had been “incredibly reckless.” Reflecting the bind Trump’s foes face, she followed up Tuesday by saying she’d be inclined to pardon him if she won the White House. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is also in the race, told the Wall Street Journal: “I can’t defend what is alleged.” The willingness of GOP primary candidates to criticize Trump doesn’t just reflect the seriousness of the charges; it may also suggest his rivals sense Trump is increasingly politically vulnerable over the case.

Some other members of the GOP are making similar points. Republican Rep. Ken Buck, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told CNN’s Dana Bash that “there were national security implications from having documents in an unsecure area.” The Colorado lawmaker added: “I think that the prosecutor really went into a lot of detail to explain to the American public why it was necessary to indict a former president.” Another Republican, Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, pointed to Trump’s “reckless disregard” for classified information. “How you handle our nation’s secrets is of paramount importance,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju. For now, these are minority positions being vocalized by conservative House Republicans, but they show growing questions about Trump’s suitability to serve as commander in chief in future.

— Trump’s decision to fuse his criminal defense with his presidential campaign also raises huge questions about his own prospects. Criminal defendants find that their time and schedule is increasingly at the whim of the courts as they must appear at various hearings even before a trial. This potentially could cause havoc with Trump’s political schedule. He is already awaiting trial next March, in the thick of primary season, after pleading not guilty to falsifying business records in a Manhattan case linked to a hush money payment to a former adult film star. Trump is likely to also find out by the end of the summer whether he will be charged in an investigation by Fani Willis, a district attorney in Georgia, over his attempts to steal Biden’s 2020 election win in the critical swing state.

Apart from the logistical complications, Trump’s strategy – and his rhetoric on Tuesday evening – also begs another question. Do Republican voters want to fully commit to a campaign almost exclusively focusing on his personal grievances and legal fate? Other than warning that he is taking heat from the Justice Department to shield his supporters, Trump hasn’t offered much of a campaign message to GOP voters on the economy, health care, national security, education and other key issues. His fighter’s mentality and flouting of rules is core to his appeal, but his personality cult has tended to drown out the party’s ideological priorities in recent years. One of his top GOP rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has tried to get at this point by arguing that he could be far more effective in implementing “Make America Great Again” political priorities as president.

The salience of Trump’s grievance campaign could become even more relevant in a general election. The former president already had an uphill task in appealing to suburban swing voters he alienated in 2020. A campaign that seems like a personal crusade to keep himself out of jail might make the task of winning them back even more complicated.