Donald Trump’s indictment on charges related to the payments of hush money to a porn star breathes new life into his favorite campaign tactic — running as the aggrieved victim of a Democratic-run Deep State hellbent on keeping him and his supporters out of power.
Just when Republicans were beginning to believe that Trump was vulnerable if he ran a campaign about all the people he believes are out to punish him, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg gave the one-term ex-president no reason to change his tune.
Charges — and even a criminal conviction — don’t legally stop Trump from running, or even serving as president. It’s all up to his opponents to make or break Trump’s political future if prosecutors can make a charge stick.
For Trump, the indictment is like capturing lightning in a bottle, allowing him to fully unleash his unscripted, hours-long speeches about his previous two impeachments, and the long series of “hoaxes” and “witch hunts” he says that Democrats created to block him from “saving America” for his White, working-class base, who believe an elite ruling class has ignored them.
“When they go after me, they’re going after you,” Trump said during his first 2024 campaign rally on March 25 in Waco, Texas, where he said “either the Deep State destroys America, or we destroy the Deep State” in a speech focused on his grievances. “Our enemies are desperate to stop us because they know that we are the only ones who can stop them.”
That approach could very well win him the 2024 Republican nomination, as he has continued to maintain the support of about a third of GOP voters, enough to win in a crowded field.
“The political elites and powerbrokers have weaponized government to try and stop him,” said Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump’s Super PAC, MAGA Inc.
The indictment lays bare just how much Trump has upended the GOP — and American politics. Signs point to a galvanized Republican base following the arrest of a former president and current party front-runner.
After shouldering blame for a disappointing Republican midterm election performance, this was the party’s best chance in the last seven years to move past Trump. Yet the salacious case that was initially thought to have doomed his 2016 presidential run likely supercharges his 2024 comeback bid.
It’s sure to repel the crucial general election independent voters, particularly suburban women, who were repelled by Trump’s behavior, throwing a lifeline to President Joe Biden and Democrats in 2024. The president and his party have been laser focused on trying to lash the entire Republican Party to Trump as its symbol.
It also prevents the party from putting forth a younger, possibly stronger candidate against Biden, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who tried to subtly sound the alarm recently as he took a more confrontational stance toward Trump.
The indictment comes on the same day that Trump’s Super PAC is spending nearly $1.3 million to attack DeSantis, who Trump considers his strongest potential 2024 Republican primary challenger. DeSantis hasn’t yet officially declared a widely expected White House run.
In a statement posted on Twitter Thursday evening, the governor called the indictment a “weaponization of the legal system” and that “Florida will not assist in an extradition request.” The statement did not mention the former president by name.
Trump defense lawyer Joe Tacopina said he expects Trump to be arraigned next week.
GOP strategist Katon Dawson said he recently asked a Trump supporter and business executive how he would react if Trump were charged with a felony. He said the executive replied, “I’ll probably have to send him more money.”
“It’ll make his base even more solid because it’ll show the message that Donald Trump’s been giving them is true,” added Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who is supporting Nikki Haley in her run for the nomination. “It’s fixed, it’s hooked up, it’s crooked.”
Among the first Republicans to be swayed were members of Congress, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. A number of them rallied to his side at least to say that they firmly believed Bragg’s prosecution was politically motivated, given that his predecessor and the Justice Department both decided not to pursue these charges.
“The prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said at a conservative forum in North Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this month.
Trump is also facing possible criminal prosecution for his handing of classified documents, his role in instigating the Jan. 6 riot and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. He also faces a lawsuit by New York Attorney General Letitia James that accused him and three of his children of fraudulently manipulating the value of his company’s assets for years to deceive banks and insurers.
But Trump has faced two impeachments as president, and scandals that would have brought down other politicians. But he has so far survived it all, and even politically weakened, he remains popular among GOP base voters and is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
A Monmouth poll out March 22 showed Trump with 41% support among Republicans in March, when the intensity of his complaints about the criminal prosecution strengthened, up from 33% in February. Meanwhile DeSantis was at 27% before he has announced a run.
“It’s not going to convince anybody who already does not like President Trump, but I think there’s a pretty decent segment of voters in the middle who are like, ‘Enough’s enough, leave the guy alone,’” said Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin, who has conducted surveys for Trump. “I don’t think the rank-and-file Republican primary voter trusts any of this stuff.”
His rivals are walking a fine line. Several have come out against the Manhattan district attorney, fearful of turning off Trump voters and of seeming to favor a Democrat prosecuting a former president.
DeSantis, who’s all but running against Trump, deftly split the difference when he noted to laughs from reporters that he was unfamiliar with the process of paying hush money to porn stars, but added Bragg had gone too far.
That drew an angry response from Trump and his allies who called DeSantis weak for not defending Trump against what they characterized as Democrats “weaponizing” the government to target their political opponents — a theme the indictment allows Trump to use in his campaign.
“I don’t think Donald Trump has any forward-looking vision for the country. He never has,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “It would absolutely give him an excuse to play the victim.”
(Emily Wilkins contributed to this report.)