How a Trump Indictment Could Affect His 2024 Presidential Campaign

The political and legal bombshell could rally Republican voters to the former president’s side, but it could also prompt them to seek out an alternative.

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How a Trump Indictment Could Affect His 2024 Presidential Campaign |

The state Republican Party’s annual meeting in Salem, N.H., in January. Donald J. Trump famously said he could shoot someone and not lose supporters, but he has never before faced a criminal charge.

If Donald J. Trump is indicted in New York in the coming days as expected, the political and legal bombshell would defy historical precedent, upend the former president’s reality and throw the race for the 2024 Republican nomination into highly uncertain territory.

With the grand jury in a Manhattan court expected to return on Monday afternoon, and an indictment possible as soon as that day, perhaps the biggest electoral question is whether Mr. Trump would continue to rally his supporters in the G.O.P. primary to his side.

In the past, he has used investigations into his business, personal and political activities to stir a defensive sentiment among his most die-hard supporters. His backers came to see investigations into whether his 2016 campaign conspired with Russians, as well as two impeachment inquiries, as part of what he often claimed was a partisan “witch hunt.”

Mr. Trump has done the same thing in the lead-up to a possible indictment in Manhattan, with even some of his detractors questioning the wisdom of the case.

The former president is set to make a return to Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Monday night. The Rupert Murdoch-owned network, as well as other Murdoch news outlets, has heavily criticized Mr. Trump and promoted Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

  • Specter of Violence Looms: In a social media post, Donald Trump warned of “potential death and destruction” if he was indicted. Hours later, the Manhattan district attorney’s office received a threatening letter.
  • Suppressing October Surprises: The payoff to Stormy Daniels that has a Manhattan grand jury weighing criminal charges against Trump can trace its lineage to political skulduggery in 1968 and 1980.
  • Perp-Walk Fixation: As Trump focuses on how an indictment would look, he has appeared significantly disconnected from the severity of his potential legal woes.
  • From Ally to Antagonist: Michael Cohen once said he would take a bullet for Trump. Now, Cohen is hoping to help prosecutors put him away.

It is possible, however, that Mr. Trump’s legal problems, which extend past Manhattan into three other investigations, will erode his standing and lead Republican voters to seek out an alternative — perhaps Mr. DeSantis, his leading potential rival in early polls, or perhaps someone else.

Mr. Trump has moved quickly to try to head off Mr. DeSantis’s attempt to replace him as the party’s standard-bearer. In social media posts, the former president has attacked Mr. DeSantis over issues including Florida’s public health restrictions early in the pandemic and the governor’s perceived lack of loyalty to Mr. Trump, who gave Mr. DeSantis a key endorsement during his 2018 campaign.

“He’s dropping like a rock,” the former president said at his rally on Saturday in Waco, Texas, pointing to his increased advantage over the governor in recent surveys. While Mr. DeSantis places second in most public opinion polls of Republican primary voters, his numbers have slipped since the sugar high in his standing following his decisive re-election in November, even with extensive support from Mr. Murdoch’s empire.

In turn, Mr. DeSantis has taken subtler jabs at Mr. Trump, drawing attention to the personal conduct involved in the case the former president is facing — which centers on hush-money payments to a porn star just before the 2016 election — and seeking to draw a contrast with Mr. Trump by presenting himself as a low-drama “winner.”

“In terms of my approach to leadership, I get personnel in the government who have the agenda of the people and share our agenda,” Mr. DeSantis told the British media personality Piers Morgan recently. “You bring your own agenda in, you’re gone. We’re just not going to have that. So, the way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board, and I think that’s something that’s very important.”

Most of Mr. Trump’s allies have refused to believe that an indictment could come, making the actual event seem to them like an abstraction. How it would eventually play out for Mr. Trump — who in 2016 predicted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any of his backers — is an open question.

As he has done in the face of other investigations, Mr. Trump has assailed the long-running Manhattan investigation as part of a campaign of persecution against him. He has called the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, who is Black, an “animal” and has accused him of being “racist,” insisting that any prosecution was politically motivated.

With the probability of an indictment looming, Mr. Trump devoted a portion of a campaign speech early this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland to framing an indictment as an effort to damage him politically.

“Every time the polls go up higher and higher, the prosecutors get crazier and crazier,” Mr. Trump said.

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and a possible 2024 Republican presidential contender, sounded a skeptical note about Mr. Trump’s claims that he would be bolstered by an indictment.

“What the hell else is he going to say?” Mr. Christie said on ABC News’s “This Week” this month. “If you get indicted, you know, you’ve got to say that, or else it’s a death knell, right?”

It is unclear how his Republican rivals would approach such a significant change in Mr. Trump’s circumstances, but they would face pressure from Mr. Trump’s die-hard backers to speak in support of him and against the prosecutors in the case. While Mr. DeSantis has tweaked Mr. Trump’s personal conduct, he has also criticized Mr. Bragg.

Still, it is also not clear that whatever immediate support Mr. Trump could garner would be durable.

“When Trump speculated his voters would stick with him even if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, he probably didn’t expect to actually test their loyalty with a criminal indictment,” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist. “But that’s the question he faces now: Will the base stay with him? The truth is: Nobody knows. I mean, this is something out of a John Grisham novel, not the Almanac of American Politics.”


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