If you are Donald Trump, being under criminal indictment is business as usual and not necessarily a major obstacle to a presidential bid. Prior indictments this year in Manhattan and in Florida have not hurt, and have arguably helped, his 2024 candidacy. Up until now, the big question was whether Trump could avoid going to trial in any of his pending cases before the primaries and/or the general election.
But now it looks like the criminal indictment everyone’s been waiting on, regarding Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, is about to come down from special counsel Jack Smith. Unlike the 2016 hush-money allegations and the classified-documents case, any January 6–related indictment is very likely to involve events that virtually every American is aware of and that aren’t shrouded in so many legal technicalities as to disguise the basic issues. Some of the same ground will likely be covered in an upcoming state criminal indictment in Georgia, so the question of Trump’s culpability for the developments leading up to (and perhaps including) the January 6 insurrection will be front and center as the dog days of August arrive.
The key questions for political junkies are simple but not entirely answerable. First, will this be the indictment that derails the 45th president’s front-running campaign for the 2024 presidential nomination, either by itself or via the sheer weight of Trump’s accumulating legal peril? And second, are Trump’s intra-party enemies and rivals in a position to exploit any fallout from his legal problems?
The one thing we pretty much know for sure is that a January 6 indictment will keep the spotlight where it has been since the first indictment came down in early April: on Trump as the center of the GOP political universe. While it’s possible that his status as a serial criminal defendant or the evidence of his criminality will alienate a crucial portion of his huge base of supporters and provide an opening to someone among his large field of opposing candidates, there’s not much Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, or any of them can do about it. Indeed, the other candidates will be under intense pressure to defend Trump and attack his prosecutorial tormenters, as they have done with respect to the earlier indictments.
As for the issues a January 6 indictment will raise, Trump will benefit from a large and even growing conviction among big majorities of Republicans that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. To those who believe Trump’s agitated conduct up to and including January 6 represented a righteous reaction to a stolen or at least credibly contested result, evidence that he was fighting like hell to to prevent Biden’s inauguration will reinforce his claim that he was battling to keep them from being disenfranchised. High-profile regurgitation of the details of what happened in late 2020 and early 2021 will benefit Trump in another way, too: It will undermine arguments by other Republicans (like those that Georgia governor Brian Kemp made just yesterday) that the former president is too focused on his 2020 grievances. He’s being threatened with imprisonment over them! It’s a breaking-news campaign issue not just for Trump but for the entire GOP field, and of course, for Jack Smith’s ultimate boss in the White House.
I suppose it’s possible this indictment will be the straw that broke the camel’s back with a critical accretion to Trump’s “baggage.” But to credit that possibility we’d need to see some evidence that rank-and-file Republicans — not just anonymously sourced Beltway elites who have wanted to get rid of Trump from the get-go — are tired of him and the claims that a January 6 indictment will reinforce among his supporters. Is the timing of a new indictment inconvenient for its target? Perhaps, though it’s hard to imagine a better excuse for Trump skipping the upcoming debates than the need to focus on this existential battle against the Democratic enemies most Republican loathe.
If a January 6 indictment does turn out to be the tipping point that sends Trump’s intra-party popularity spiraling down, who’s in the best position to take advantage of it? The most obvious answer is DeSantis, partly because he has the money, the elite support (shaky as it might currently be), and standing in the polls to pose a credible challenge to the front-runner when voters begin voting in Iowa next January. The Florida governor has also worked hard to position himself as a MAGA alternative to Trump, perhaps even Trumpier than the master himself. It doesn’t seem to be working so far, but a true collapse in the former president’s support could make DeSantis more attractive as a successor.
But at this point, the most likely damage to Trump stemming from his legal peril and the evidence of his misconduct is to his strength as a general-election candidate. If his electability takes a big and tangible hit, then perhaps DeSantis — or if he’s yesterday’s news, maybe a “fresh face” like Tim Scott or even a late entry like Glenn Youngkin — could gain some traction. But it’s a bit of a vicious circle: To the extent that Republicans are forced to express solidarity with Trump’s grievances and extremist policy positions, they’re going to share his electability problems. Now more than ever, Trump is the sun king of Republican politics, and all others labor in his shadow.
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