Trump Faces Unprecedented Legal Peril, But will it Hurt His Standing with Republican Voters?

AP Photo
Former President Donald Trump reacts as he visits with campaign volunteers at the Grimes Community Complex Park, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In March, when Donald Trump became the first former president in U.S. history indicted on criminal charges, his reelection campaign saw a huge surge in donations. Even political rivals rushed to support him. There was no dent in his front-runner status after the state charges in New York.

Thursday’s news that Trump has been indicted again, this time on federal charges related to his handling of classified documents, may offer a repeat.

A 37-count felony indictment unsealed Friday accuses Trump of willful retention and improper sharing of national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice and corruptly concealing a document or record, among other charges. The top counts carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction.

But soon after he was indicted, there were clear signs that Republican voters may be willing to entrust him again with access to the nation’s biggest secrets and authority over the very laws prosecutors say he defied.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said the indictment would not fundamentally change Trump’s standing in the GOP or his advantage in the crowded 2024 Republican primary.

“In any other decade, this would be more than enough to kill a presidential contender in the crib. That’s no longer the case – particularly for Donald Trump,” Newhouse said. He argued Trump has been effectively setting expectations for more charges for months.

“This comes as a surprise to very few Republicans,” Newhouse said. “Trump’s been saying he’d get indicted. He got indicted. The sense from many Republican voters is that this is all about politics.”

The prospect that someone under indictment — twice — could somehow still be considered a viable presidential candidate underscores Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and the ways that he has fundamentally transformed democratic norms in America.

It also illustrates just how effective he has become at inoculating himself against political fallout by setting expectations and controlling the narrative. And it reflects growing Republican hostility toward the federal government and particularly the Justice Department, which Trump has now spent the better part of a decade maligning.

But even if the indictment doesn’t hurt Trump’s standing with Republican primary voters, it’s far from certain that the broader set of general election voters, which includes independents and moderates in both parties, will be as forgiving next fall in a prospective matchup against President Joe Biden.

The Democratic president beat Trump in 2020 with a promise to restore a sense of normalcy to Washington after Trump’s drama-filled presidency. With these new charges, Trump’s baggage is only growing heavier.

The former president faces the possibility of still more indictments in Georgia and Washington, D.C., a prospect that could see him facing trial in four separate jurisdictions while running to return to the highest office in the land.

For now, the new indictment throws Trump back into the spotlight, dominating every news cycle and denying his rivals space to break through to voters, just as many have formally launched their campaigns.

Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, a fierce Trump critic and founder of the Republican Accountability Project, acknowledged the indictment might ultimately help Trump seize the GOP nomination.

“I’ve certainly seen a ‘rally around Trump effect’ every time Trump is impeached or indicted,” she said, adding that much depends on the reaction of his Republican 2024 challengers.

“Does anyone have the political talent to seize this as an opportunity? Or will they all line up behind Trump?” she said. “Because if they all defend him, they will relegate themselves to bit players in Trump’s drama and never get around to making an affirmative case for themselves.”

Still, Doug Heye, another Republican strategist, said Trump’s primary opponents do have a major opportunity to argue that the former president cannot win in 2024 because of his baggage.

“This should be gold for Republican presidential candidates, should they choose to use it,” Heye said.

So far Trump’s rivals instead seem to be rallying to his side — an acknowledgement of his enduring popularity with the GOP voters they need to win over in order to snag the nomination.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who received backlash after he briefly knocked Trump over the New York case, lashed out at the Justice Department in a tweet Thursday night. “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” he wrote.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott used similar language in an appearance on Fox News, decrying “the weaponization of the Department of Justice against the former president.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence said he was “deeply troubled” that Trump had been indicted because he believed it would further divide the nation.

Only former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a long-shot candidate and frequent Trump critic, offered a rebuke. “This reaffirms the need for Donald Trump to respect the office and end his campaign,” he said.

Republican leaders in Congress, as they have time after time, sprang to Trump’s defense as if in choreographed unison.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the indictment marked “a dark day for the United States of America” and a “grave injustice.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise accused President Biden of ”weaponizing his Department of Justice against his own political rival” with a “sham indictment” that was “the continuation of the endless political persecution of Donald Trump.”

Trump and his allies had been bracing for a federal indictment since the president’s lawyers were informed he was a target of the investigation, believing it was a matter of when — not if — charges would be brought.

Trump received word of the indictment Thursday evening while huddled with advisers at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is spending the summer. He broke the news to the world himself on his Truth Social platform.

His team — well practiced in crisis response — had already asked allies to have supportive statements at the ready, and quickly reacted with a fundraising solicitation and opposition research targeting special counsel Jack Smith. As political donations poured in, Trump ended the night playing DJ at dinner with a mix that included songs from Elvis Presley, Pavarotti and James Brown.

Trusty said on CNN that Trump would appear in court Tuesday, as requested.

“He’s not shrinking from the fight,” he said Thursday. “You’re not going to see him hide in Scotland. He’s going to be ready to handle this case and help his attorneys fight it.”

Trusty and another Trump attorney resigned from the case on Friday.

People close to Trump have long seen the Mar-a-Lago case as far more serious than the charges he faces in New York in connection to hush money payments made to women who accused him of affairs. Conviction of the federal charges would be expected to carry far steeper legal consequences, and Smith is generally viewed as more difficult to malign than Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an elected Democrat.

Trump’s first indictment failed to hurt his support, and polls suggest his position among Republicans has, if anything, grown stronger in the months since.

An April poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly half of Americans (47%) said they believe Trump did something illegal in the classified documents case, slightly more than the 41% who said he did something illegal in the New York hush money case.

New York-based Republican donor Eric Levine, who has emerged as a vocal Trump critic in recent months, acknowledged that, regardless of how serious the charges may be, the Trump faithful will rally behind the former president no matter what.

“But for people who were on the fence about Trump, this may push them away,” he said. “Enough of the chaos and craziness.”