How Criminal Charges Against Trump Could Perversely Boost his 2024 Campaign

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Updated: | Originally published:

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg may be poised to bring criminal charges against Donald Trump. The former President claimed on Saturday that he expected to be arrested this Tuesday, and called on his supporters to start protesting. While the timeline remains unclear, it’s the kind of moment that would doom many political careers.

Yet Trump is likely to find quite the opposite, that being the subject of such a historic legal action might provide a boost of energy, and potentially donations, to his latest presidential bid. It’s happened before.

When he was impeached for the first time in late 2019, his re-election campaign raised millions off of it, telling supporters that it was a “deranged” effort by Washington’s elite to stop him. When the FBI executed a search warrant on the former President’s Mar-a-Lago Club in August for classified documents he was keeping there, his approval ratings among Republicans ticked up, and a political group associated with him saw a surge in donations.

Now, a Manhattan grand jury, convened by Bragg, is weighing an indictment as it hears evidence about an alleged hush money payment Trump made to pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels weeks before the 2016 election. Trump allegedly wanted to stop Daniels from speaking publicly about what she has said was a consensual affair with Trump in 2006. Bragg is reportedly considering arguing that the payments amounted to illegal campaign donations since the news of an affair could have hurt Trump’s campaign.

Daniels met with Manhattan prosecutors on Wednesday, according to her lawyer. And Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the grand jury this week. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign violations he says were part of a scheme to help Trump pay off Daniels.

Trump’s legal team has seized on the possibility that an indictment could boost Trump’s political fortunes as a way to scare off Bragg from bringing charges. “If they bring this case, I believe this will catapult him into the White House,” Trump’s defense lawyer, Joe Tacopina, said on MSNBC on Tuesday. An indictment against Trump, Tacopina added, “will show how they are weaponizing the justice system. They’re taking the vote out of the voters’ hands.”

Trump is currently facing more legal investigations than any former President in history. He is under scrutiny by Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis for trying to overturn Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia, and Department of Justice Special Council Jack Smith is investigating Trump’s handling of classified material and his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss. Last year, Bragg declined to press charges against Trump for allegedly misleading lenders and insurers about the value of his properties.

Trump has survived decades of lawsuits and investigators nipping at his heels. Amid years of high-profile investigations into whether he or his associates colluded with Russia, or his role in a deadly riot against the Capitol, the prospect of Trump getting indicted over his alleged efforts to cover up an affair may come across as underwhelming to even many of his critics. Trump has said he would continue his presidential campaign if he was indicted.

Charges related to the Daniels’ hush money payments would be “old news to most people,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster, and “he could easily spin this as just a liberal democratic vendetta against him.”

An indictment by Bragg, Ayres adds, would have “substantially less effect than an indictment in Georgia or by the Department of Justice would have because it’s a New York Democratic prosecutor who would be doing it.”

Hogan Gidley, a former Trump White House spokesman who still speaks regularly to Trump, agrees that the former President’s 2024 campaign would be able to make hay out of criminal charges.

“It definitely gets people angry that the government and other entities would attack somebody in this way, and it absolutely increases support” for Trump, says Gidley.

Trump, who refuses to admit he legitimately lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, announced his candidacy for President in December. More than two years after his defeat by Biden at the ballot box, Trump still has strong support among Republicans. But he’s failed to clear the field of challengers going into 2024, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has not officially launched a presidential campaign, is drawing strong attention from GOP donors and in polling. At a campaign speech in Iowa on Monday, Trump slammed DeSantis, calling him Ron “DeSanctimonious.”

After federal agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club last year, many Republicans, including DeSantis, rallied around Trump and criticized the action. A similar pattern was already unfolding over the weekend after Trump claimed he would be arrested on Tuesday. Prominent Republicans including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Senator Lindsey Graham and former Vice President Mike Pence quickly criticized an indictment that had yet to be filed.

“Here we go again — an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA who lets violent criminals walk as he pursues political vengeance against President Trump,” McCarthy tweeted on Saturday. “I’m directing relevant committees to immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.”

Hans von Spakovsky, who manages the Election Law Reform Initiative at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., says that the case Bragg is pursuing is questionable. Hush money payments themselves aren’t illegal, he says, and a local prosecutor shouldn’t even be pursuing a case focused on alleged campaign violations. Such cases, he argues, belong with federal prosecutors at the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission who have known about Cohen’s guilty plea related to campaign violations since 2018. “Clearly, the two federal agencies responsible for enforcing the law and federal campaign finance laws, none of them thought this was a violation” worth charging Trump.

Von Spakovsky thinks that a potential indictment from the Manhattan district attorney would only reinforce the strong feelings most Americans already have about Trump.

“The world is divided into two halves,” von Spakovsky says, “and I suspect the people who are really big supporters of Trump will say, ‘See, this is another sign of the way people that hate him are willing to do anything to get him.’ Whereas, I think folks on the other side who don’t like Trump will say, ‘See, this just shows how bad he is.’”

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