early and often

Could a Criminal Indictment Actually Help Trump’s 2024 Campaign?

Trump thinks that indictments will “enhance my numbers.” Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Donald Trump broke a lot of the alleged rules of politics in his improbable rise to the presidency in 2016, his bizarre four-year term in office, and now his attempt at a 2024 comeback. Normally, you’d guess that a criminal indictment would be an instant disqualifier for a presidential candidate. But now that a Trump indictment seems likely in the days ahead — with additional charges from different prosecutors involving separate incidents of alleged criminal misconduct looming, and Trump himself predicting his arrest — the former president seems poised to break yet another norm.

Even if Trump is marched into prison in leg-irons (an extremely unlikely possibility), he can’t be barred from running for reelection — unless he strikes some sort of plea deal that includes foreswearing public office. As ABC News recently explained:

The U.S. Constitution does not list the absence of a criminal record as a qualification for the presidency. It says only that natural born citizens who are at least 35 years old and have been a resident of the U.S. for 14 years can run for president.

Constitutional experts also told ABC News that previous Supreme Court rulings hold that Congress cannot add qualifications to the office of the president. In addition, a state cannot prohibit indicted or convicted felons from running for federal office.

Indeed, 1920 Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won 913,693 votes while incarcerated in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on sedition charges related to his opposition to U.S. participation in World War I (Debs was later released when the 1920 winner, Warren G. Harding, commuted his sentence, then invited him to the White House for a cordial meeting).

Whether an indictment would hurt Trump’s campaign is a separate issue. Trump certainly does not think it would end his reelection bid. In fact, he told the Associated Press that criminal charges wouldn’t deter him in the slightest. “Oh, absolutely, I won’t even think about leaving,” he said this week. “Probably, it’ll enhance my numbers.”

That may sound like just another outlandish Trumpian brag, but it’s actually entirely plausible — in the short term at least. There is no reason to assume that a criminal indictment will change any minds among the MAGA faithful. Trump clearly benefited from both of his congressional impeachments among rank-and-file Republicans. And Trump’s base has been instructed for years that the “deep state,” with its tentacles extending into every branch of government, is determined to remove him from the picture in order to resume its persecution of “patriots” and its globalist destruction of the U.S.

None of the cases that could lead to charges against Trump will shock or offend his supporters. The Stormy Daniels “hush money” story at the heart of his likely indictment in Manhattan emerged shortly before his initial presidential victory, and the probable grounds for criminal charges are relatively complex and obscure. If Trump is indicted in Georgia, it will be over his alleged interference with the certification of a 2020 election that most of his supporters consider fraudulent — or at least highly suspect. And even a potential federal indictment over the ex-president’s complicity in the January 6 insurrection shouldn’t materially affect a campaign in which Trump is increasingly prone to embracing the Capitol riot as a shining moment of patriotic protest.

Plus Trump may have already undermined the credibility of his prosecutorial tormentors, as Vice News noted:

He’s shown that he can effectively rally his base against law enforcement officials by casting their probes as pure politics.

The former president has already spent months painting the prosecutors who are now poised to indict him as bogeymen to his rightwing base. [Atlanta prosecutor Fani] Willis — a Black woman, Democrat, and daughter of a Black Panther — hails from liberal Atlanta, a city Trump and Republicans love to hate.

And Republicans’ contempt for Atlanta is nothing like their loathing for New York City, where [Manhattan prosecutor Alvin] Bragg, who is also Black, already secured a conviction for criminal tax fraud against Trump’s company last year

If, as appears quite likely, the 2024 Republican presidential-nomination contest quickly devolves into a harsh, polarizing, own-the-libs competition between Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, GOP primary voters’ tendency to reward candidates who take on liberal or “deep state” officialdom will only intensify. But such rhetoric — and, for that matter, indictments against Trump — may not go over as well with general-election swing voters. And if Republican elites, or even rank-and-file conservatives, are worried about the electability of their 2024 nominee, Trump’s ensnarement in multiple criminal investigations could become a source of strength for DeSantis. The Florida governor may be as terrifyingly authoritarian as his famous constituent in Mar-a-Lago, but so far, he has steered clear of indictable offenses.

This post has been updated.

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Could an Indictment Actually Help Trump’s 2024 Campaign?