It is a measure of the topsy-turvy world of US politics that last week’s first-ever federal indictment of a former president, Donald Trump, on criminal charges may help him win the Republican party’s nomination in the 2024 race for the White House.
True to form, Trump’s initial reaction to the US justice department’s charges was to play the victim and proclaim his innocence on social media. The multimillionaire’s next move was to appeal for cash donations from his adoring, ever-credulous Make America Great Again fanbase.
The subdued and awkward reaction to the charges of Trump’s rivals for the nomination suggests they understand this political reality. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, is closest to Trump in the polls – yet he trails by about 30 points. He declined to defend the former president. But he did not criticise him either, merely repeating a familiar complaint about supposed “weaponisation of federal law enforcement” by Joe Biden’s administration. DeSantis evidently believes kicking Trump at this point would alienate many party voters.
Other Republican hopefuls, such as Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, and Mike Pence, the ultra-loyal vice-president who turned on Trump after the failed Capitol Hill coup, may be more inclined to confront their old boss. And it’s early days. Perhaps they will benefit from Trump’s travails. But at present, their poll ratings, and those of others such as Senator Tim Scott, are in single figures. Amazingly, Trump remains his party’s clear favourite – although the impact of the case on his popularity among US voters in general could be much more negative.
It’s plain the federal indictments, like previous felony charges filed in New York state over alleged hush money payments to a porn star, will be used by Trump to reinforce his claims of political persecution. Judging by his recent CNN “town hall” appearance, the former president lacks new policies or initiatives. Instead, predictably enough, his pitch to voters is all about him and his obsessive belief that Biden and the Democrats are determined by any means, fair or foul, to deny him victory again.
All such huffing and puffing aside, it remains entirely possible that Trump’s proliferating legal problems will end his political career – and land him in jail. Justice department special counsel Jack Smith has accused him on 37 counts of criminal wrongdoing, including jeopardising national security by his retention of classified documents, false testimony and obstruction of justice. Boxes of secret papers relating to nuclear programmes, Iran, and allies’ defence plans were found in Trump’s bathroom, Smith revealed. America must now contemplate the extraordinary prospect of a melodramatic, televised court battle starring Trump the defendant overlapping with the 2024 battle for the White House, starring Trump the Republican candidate. Egged on by Fox News and hard-right cheerleaders, he will seek to make maximum capital out of such a spectacle, regardless of the gravity of the charges. He will try to turn serious legal proceedings into a campaign rally.
Biden already faces numerous obstacles to his hopes of a second term, including concerns about his advanced age, relatively low approval ratings, and a vulnerable post-pandemic economy. He, too, is under investigation for his handling of classified documents. Now the president will also have to fend off claims he is conducting a politicised legal vendetta and abusing his power to eliminate his chief rival.
The criminal indictment of Trump is welcome, fully justified by the facts, and long overdue. But the coming courtroom showdown will also put Biden – and a divided America – on trial.