A criminal charge against Donald Trump in the Stormy Daniels case would benefit him greatly. But he would not be the only one to benefit.
Before federal agents descended on Mar-a-Lago, the Republican Party was divided about Donald Trump. Would this judicial intervention at his residence, the images of which were played in a loop in the global media, after so many leads and investigations, bring the career of the former president to an end?
This was in August 2022 and Trump had just announced that he had become the first president in the history of the country to have the FBI serve a search warrant on his home. One week later, the percentage of voters in his party who had a very favorable opinion of him jumped by 12 points, rising from 45% to 57%.
As the most recent episode of the Trump circus plays out around his expected indictment by Manhattan prosecutors for hush money paid to a porn star*, no one should be under any illusions: From a political point of view, in the short term, the situation is to his advantage.
With a view to Republican primaries, this state of affairs serves Trump first by placing him at the center of public debate, forcing his opponents, both official and hypothetical, to orbit around him. Moreover, it forces them to adopt a position that is difficult, if not nearly untenable.
This is particularly true for Trump’s principal rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Since early March, DeSantis has crossed the country with what has all the trappings of a presidential campaign speech. He has highlighted his management of the pandemic, during which he gained national attention by opposing a great number of health measures; Florida’s net migration during this period, fueled in part by citizens abandoning Democratic states like New York and California; his fight against “wokeism” and the traditional media; and, above all, his historic majority for reelection as governor last November.
It is an attractive sales pitch for Republican voters. However, with Trump in the spotlight again, DeSantis has been reduced to talking, not about his record or his vision, but the judicial adventures of his opponent.
This political dynamic leaves DeSantis between a rock and a hard place. But what makes him more of a serious threat to Trump’s return as the Republican candidate is his ability to attract a segment of his voters. Furthermore, the governor is aware that, to beat Trump, he will also have to unite behind himself a coalition of those voters most resistant to the former president.
In a context where silence on Trump’s indictment is not a viable option, how then can DeSantis avoid alienating Trumpist voters without alienating anti-Trumpist voters, and vice versa? It is a little like asking him to square a circle, which risks making him appear weak and conniving. This is what happened when he finally made a statement, after 48 hours of silence, on Trump’s inflammatory message on Saturday, March 18, regarding his imminent arrest.
To be clear, an arrest would not be an easy ride for Trump. After becoming the first president in history to be impeached twice, in two different instances, by the House of Representatives, and to be subject to a federal search warrant, he would be the first to be read his rights, have a mug shot taken, and be fingerprinted. For American voters as a whole, among whom fewer than 40% have a favorable opinion of Trump, this would be one more strike against him.
In other words, all of this is capable of strengthening Trump in the Republican primaries while weakening him in the subsequent general election. It is a dynamic similar to that observed in so many key races during the 2022 midterms where pro-Trump Republican candidates won their primaries only to later lose in the general election.
In such a context, it is safe to say that the Democrats and sympathetic media outlets will do everything in their power to further amplify the present drama.
The good news for the Democrats is that this affair is likely to stretch out for some time given the slow nature of the judicial process and potential appeals. And even if Trump is found guilty, he would still be constitutionally eligible for the presidency.
A criminal record in itself is not enough to bar a candidate from the job of commander-in-chief as Joe Exotic, star of the series “Tiger King,” has shown when he announced directly from federal prison his own candidacy for president for 2024 as a Libertarian.
The circus goes on. And Joe Biden can only watch this spectacle with a smile on his face.
*Editor’s Note: On Thursday, March 30, a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict Donald Trump on charges that remained sealed as of the date of publication of this article.