GOP Warns Trump’s Indictment Is His Biggest Campaign Asset
Two weeks before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump proclaimed he could shoot someone on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not lose a single one of his supporters.
Eight years later, Trump has become the first former president in U.S. history ever to face a criminal indictment. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has brought charges stemming from allegations Trump paid porn star Stormy Daniels to remain silent about their affair ahead of the 2016 election.
The potential offense is hardly akin to firing on someone on a busy street. But it marks uncharted territory in American politics—and the reaction to the news is proving the enduring truth underneath Trump’s infamous 2016 boast.
Since Trump has already teased his own indictment, Republican officials and operatives have already argued that the unprecedented situation will only empower Trump as he makes a third straight bid for the White House.
Trump’s base—which has held firm at around one third of GOP voters, surviving two impeachments, an attempted coup and attack on the Capitol, a lackluster 2022 midterm cycle and all the rest—is going nowhere, they say.
“If Trump gets indicted, it will only strengthen his standing in the primary,” one GOP strategist without a horse in the race told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen this with impeachment and the raid at Mar-a-Lago. Voters rally around him when they believe he is being unfairly targeted by political opponents within the justice system.”
At a recent conservative conference in South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told a crowd that “the prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today.”
Even former Vice President Mike Pence, a likely 2024 rival who has gradually scaled up his attacks on Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection, recently argued the Daniels case was too frivolous to merit charges against his former boss.
“The fact that the Manhattan DA thinks that indicting President Trump is his top priority, I think… just tells you everything you need to know about the radical left in this country,” Pence told Jonathan Karl of ABC.
On CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper, Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, said what many Republicans have been worrying about privately when it comes to Trump being prosecuted for something unrelated to his attempts to subvert the 2020 election.
“I do think that this probably benefits the president in the short term, because it does rally Republicans around him, saying he’s once again the object of an unfair prosecution,” Short said, adding that Trump would use the Manhattan case to cast doubt on “far more serious” probes on the state and federal level related to 2020 and Jan. 6.
“If he can create this notion they’re all politically based,” Short continued, “I think it helps him politically, and certainly, that’s what he’s trying to do.”
From the Russia investigation to Trump’s first and second impeachments, Republicans of all stripes have long warned—or concern-trolled—that efforts to hold the ex-president accountable would inevitably only make him stronger.
In 2019, Graham, for example, cast doubt on Trump’s first impeachment by predicting it would only lead to his second term. Instead, Trump became the first president in 40 years to lose reelection.
The problem for Republicans is that while a criminal case could make Trump even more toxic among the broader electorate, it’s Republican voters who have the power to make him the party’s presidential nominee for a third straight election.
The true battleground of the 2024 primary will unfold in the increasingly contested ground between the MAGA bloc and the traditional Republican voter base.
As the primary challenges to Trump from figures like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—and potentially Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—show there’s certainly some appetite among GOP primary voters across the board to move past Trump.
“What’s not being said is Republicans want a generational change and fresh approach,” a veteran GOP strategist said, specifically of the non-MAGA factions within the party. “They are sick of old bags and Trump drama.”
An early primary state Republican operative said the Manhattan case should be another nail in Trump’s coffin among GOP voters he turned off by 2020 and 2022, but Teflon Don’s track record still made them pause.
“Seems like it should be a slam dunk, but my gut tells me otherwise,” the GOP presidential primary veteran told The Daily Beast.
While the indictment of a former president and current presidential candidate is historically significant, it comes amid decades of retrenchment from mainstream institutions among GOP voters and a skepticism of the justice system going back to Waco. Trump allies have been beating the drum of Bragg carrying a “weak case” against the former president despite not seeing the evidence yet, as The New York Times recently explained.
The unprecedented indictment posed an opportunity for the leading Trump alternative at this early stage of the primary: DeSantis.
Concerns remain that the Florida governor—who has not officially launched a campaign—could take that mantle. Given his past hesitancy to criticize Trump over his legal issues, the longtime GOP strategist said they saw a potential post-indictment window as an opportunity the DeSantis team will likely overlook.
Already, DeSantis has exuded caution in his response to the indictment news, particularly in the face of taunts and loud complaints from Trumpworld that he has not sufficiently denounced Bragg’s efforts.
Speaking publicly recently, DeSantis largely punted on the issue—though he worked in a minor dig at the ex-president.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said at a Panama City press conference in the middle of an answer mostly dedicated to attacking Bragg on crime in New York City. “I just, I can’t speak to that.”
The governor’s hesitance also leaves an opening for someone else to go on offense against Trump across media outlets DeSantis won’t touch.
Haley has taken a pass on any sort of Trump offensive, focusing her messaging on President Joe Biden’s dealings with China and Russia. Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, another likely candidate who has been an unabashed Trump critic at times, instead described the looming indictment as “building a lot of sympathy for the former president.”
And while DeSantis made sure to let the terms “hush money” and “porn star” linger for effect in his press conference, he focused his message on Bragg as a stand-in for the Democratic Party’s approach to crime, throwing red meat to the base by calling him a “Soros-funded prosecutor.”
Legal proceedings in Manhattan could drag out for months or even years, meaning that Trump’s GOP foes will likely have to navigate the story line for the duration of the primary.
As one early primary state Republican operative put it, “a lot of us have been waiting for the other shoe to drop for quite some time.” Those waiting for the other shoe, they added, were never coming back to Trump in the first place.
When asked which prospective candidate would benefit most from a Trump indictment, the second GOP strategist went with none of the above.
“Who benefits from an indictment of Kim Jong Trump? America.”
Source: The Daily Beast
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