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Donald Trump may be days, or even hours, away from becoming the first former President to be criminally indicted. It’s what Trump critics have been waiting years for. But this was not the case they were envisioning as the one leading to that coveted Trump mugshot.
Democrats privately are worried that the case before a Manhattan grand jury—based on Trump’s alleged role in hush-money payments made to an adult film star to cover up an affair—might be the weakest of all of the investigations into Trump and his orbit. It’s also not connected to the aspects of the former President’s behavior that his detractors find most galling, such as his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Even Republican NeverTrumpers who are eager to crown a new leader of their party fear that a case seen as less-than-rock-solid could undermine future, potentially more damning ones.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is widely expected to be preparing an indictment of Trump on a felony for bookkeeping fraud, a charge based on his companies’ ledgers listing legal retainers which were actually hush money about an affair with Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors would have to prove that Trump ordered his lieutenants to make the false entries with the express purpose to defraud. To reach the felony threshold, those prosecutors would also have to prove that Trump made those false entries to sanction another crime—a potentially easy spot for Trump’s defense to discredit.
For most presidential candidates, even the whiff of legal or ethical trouble would amount to a starting pistol for their opponents. In 2008, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, critics of Hillary Clinton made sure every reporter’s inbox had links to the local reporting on the arrest of an unpaid adviser for drunken driving in Nashua. Four years later, Mitt Romney never could shake the notion that he was a heartless and ruthless corporate raider, no matter how hard he tried to combat the notion.
As TIME’s Brian Bennett reports, Trump’s legal team actually thinks an indictment could prove helpful for Trump’s return to power, or at least his chase of the GOP nomination for a third time. And here’s the harsh truth: they aren’t entirely irrational. Trump and his allies would not have much difficulty painting an indictment tied to his efforts to cover up a decade-old affair as a “political witch hunt.” Such a framing fits nicely with the perpetual grievance machine that Trump has created, so much so that it could even help his standing with the base (although the outlook gets cloudier when it comes to a general election between him and the likely Democratic nominee, President Joe Biden).
To whip up his supporters, Trump on Saturday asserted—without evidence—that he would be arrested this Tuesday: “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” he posted on his social media platform in an echo of his promotion of the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that turned into a deadly riot.
Trump saw his enviably steady poll standing bump up after raids of his private home in Florida. If Trump’s first indictment comes out of New York—a venue seen as a reliably favorable to Democrats—and is received cautiously even by some liberals, what are the odds of anyone paying attention to ones based on his attempt to keep the presidency through cajoling Georgia election officials, or what the Department of Justice here in D.C. might do with a House committee’s recommendations for his role around the Jan. 6 mob? Plenty of risk lies in wait.
All of which lays out how, once again, the laws of political gravity seldom apply to Trump, a man who has consistently survived scandals that would have crippled other figures. Even after two impeachments, a national electoral loss, a failed attempt to undo that loss on Jan. 6, and a pile of stories about missing classified documents, Trump has the backing of two-thirds of Republicans and independent voters who lean that way, according to recent polls.
Those facts alone help explain why many of his would-be rivals quickly stepped up to defend the ex-President.
There will have to be a moment to directly challenge Trump if any of his roughly two dozen aspirational challengers have a chance to deny him the nomination. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was blunt when asked about the threat: “Look at the end, being indicted never helps anybody.”
While Republicans are weary of his style, they are telling pollsters they want someone who shares their worldview more than someone who can beat Biden. And given that 84% of them are saying Biden wasn’t legitimately elected in 2020 and 56% saying there is solid evidence of this, Trumpism clearly has taken hold. (Neither statement is true.) Seeing Trump in handcuffs would only boost that sense of being wronged. And it may compel Trump’s most viable challengers to treat him with empathy and solidarity if they ever hope to someday entice voters to plant non-Trump yard signs and buy non-MAGA swag down the line.
The only question their strategists have to mull at the moment is what—if anything—can break the Trump fever inside the current GOP? Maybe not even a mugshot can do it right now.
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