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Trump's legal troubles are threatening to upend the 2024 GOP race, and he's not even charged

Kimberly Leonard,Oma Seddiq   

Trump's legal troubles are threatening to upend the 2024 GOP race, and he's not even charged
  • Former President Donald Trump faces possible criminal charges as he's running for president.
  • The case could take him away from the campaign trail and make voters worry about his electability.

The Manhattan grand jury's potential criminal charges against former President Donald Trump threaten to send shockwaves into the 2024 Republican nomination contest.

An indictment, which would be the first ever of a former president, could become a galvanizing force for Trump's most ardent supporters but also repel independent voters reminded of the reality show-esque drama that surrounds him, political insiders say.

Empaneled by District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the grand jury has been investigating Trump's role in a hush-money payment made during his 2016 campaign to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and appears to be nearing a possible historic indictment.

Denying any wrongdoing, Trump has repeatedly railed against the probe as a witch hunt — framing that could motivate his base and even bolster his status as the GOP frontrunner if he's charged.

"If it's a circus, there's only one ringmaster and that's Trump," said GOP pollster B.J. Martino, president and CEO of The Tarrance Group. "And he'll benefit and be able potentially to pull some of those who have a favorable impression of him, but maybe aren't voting for him right now, into the camp because they're gonna have that rally effect."

But potential charges and courtroom appearances could also impede Trump's effort to persuade Republican primary voters to give him another shot at the White House after he lost in 2020 and after many of his hand-picked candidates were defeated in 2022.

"It will cause more internal chaos, slow the organization down, and scare donors away," John Thomas, who runs the independent super PAC, Ron to the Rescue, that wants Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to run for president, predicted to Insider.

Amid rumors that the grand jury is nearing a decision on whether to charge Trump — a possibility the ex-commander-in-chief himself has stoked in recent days — Republican presidential hopefuls have started jumping into the fray.

DeSantis, a rising GOP star widely expected to run for 2024, has become the former president's most contentious rival in the likely field, questioning his character, drawing attention to the "drama" of his administration, and raising doubts about his electability.

Meanwhile, Trump's allies in Washington have rushed to defend him, echoing his accusations that Bragg, a Democrat, is politically biased and abusing his prosecutorial authority to destroy the former president.

'They want a winner'

Trump has proven to be the ultimate political survivor. Repeated scandals have failed to dent his Republican support in what some experts have viewed as an act of defying political gravity, or even flipping it upside-down: Turning the news into entertainment as he insults his critics and stirs the next controversy. Will an indictment be any different?

Operatives thinking of ways to land punches on Trump say GOP primary candidates could argue that he would lose the general election because of his legal troubles. Republican focus groups show that voters can disagree wholeheartedly with an indictment of Trump yet still worry that it might affect his electability, said Gunner Ramer, political director at the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project.

"They want a winner," Ramer said. "They want to beat Joe Biden."

The sheer number of Republicans willing to challenge Trump signals that the party views the former president's influence as waning. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have formally mounted campaigns, but more are expected to enter the race besides DeSantis, including former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Political insiders widely concede that a potential indictment — and how Trump responds — could still backfire on GOP challengers and strengthen Trump. Polling shows Trump leads both declared and undeclared challengers by double digits.

"A candidate running under indictment would seem to be a liability, and if you're running against that candidate, you'd probably want to weaponize that liability," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics' newsletter on US elections. "But the other Republicans have to figure out a way to use that weapon against Trump. I don't know if they're capable of doing it, or doing it in an effective way."

'This is us versus them'

Most aspiring politicians who faced criminal charges had to kiss their election chances goodbye. The late US Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, considered a bipartisan icon, lost his 2008 reelection race shortly after he was found guilty of hiding gifts from an oil executive.

The case was a distraction that pulled him away from campaigning, Larry Persily, a journalist and former federal official in Alaska, told Insider. Newspaper headlines and broadcasts blared the word "corruption" before voters, rather than reminding them of the work Stevens had done for Alaska.

"It was a focus of public attention, so he wasn't on the trail as much as he wanted to be," Persily said.

Trump could confront similar consequences if he's charged. Images of the former president surrendering himself to the DA's office in Lower Manhattan would be plastered across every news website and broadcast. He would be fingerprinted, swabbed for DNA, and photographed for his mugshot. And if a trial proceeds out a potential indictment, it could happen while the 2024 campaign is in full swing, forcing Trump to appear in court and take time away from the trail.

"If it does progress to trial, obviously, that could have geographic consequences on the former president and hinder his ability to campaign, at which point I do think it would be difficult for him to become the president," said Lauren Zelt, a GOP consultant who's the founder and CEO of Zelt Communications, but "there's a situation in which he could already have secured the Republican nomination by that point."

If Trump becomes the Republican nominee "and he is facing criminal charges and is being tried in our justice system," Zelt added, "I think it makes it very easy for the Democrats to secure the White House again in 2024."

The New York investigation is following a $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and fixer, made to Daniels' lawyer days before the 2016 presidential election so she would stay silent about an alleged affair she had with Trump in 2006.

In 2018, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison after he admitted to wiring the payment, which he swore under oath that Trump had authorized and reimbursed him for through monthly $35,000 checks disguised as legal fees. Prosecutors say the payment was an illegal campaign contribution. Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels and rejected claims that the payment was unlawful.

Bragg and his team appear to be considering whether Trump falsified business records in the first degree, a low-level felony in New York that carries a sentence of no jail time or as much as four years in prison.

In Trumpworld, however, the hush-money case seems like old news and is unlikely to imperil the former president's campaign, several political analysts said.

A Manhattan indictment "is not likely to impact Trump, is somewhat contrived, will be difficult to prove at least in the eyes of an appellate court applying the governing law, and relies too heavily on the Sammy the Bull Gravano of dirty tricksters — convicted felon, perjurer, disgraced lawyer, Michael Cohen," Ty Cobb, a former Trump White House lawyer who's criticized his ex-boss, said. "Why bring it?"

Trump's base has rallied behind him amid numerous ongoing legal landmines, including Georgia's Fulton County probe into Trump and his allies' efforts to overturn the state's 2020 election results, and US special counsel Jack Smith's overseeing of the Justice Department's investigations into Trump's interference in the 2020 election results and role in the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot, as well as his potential mishandling of classified documents that the FBI retrieved from his Mar-a-Lago home.

Criminal charges brought against Trump in those major cases might concern voters more than potential charges related to a hush-money payment would, especially if new revelations come down that taint his image, according to political insiders.

An indictment in the January 6 special counsel probe "is the one case that I believe would impact Trump in connection with 2024," Cobb said.

"Once filed, I believe many large Trump donors and some of his supporters abandon him at that point," Cobb continued, adding that those who believe Trump's lies will stick by him.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing in each of the criminal inquiries and has repeatedly characterized himself as the victim of political persecution. It's the same line of attack he's mounted in response to a likely Manhattan indictment.

"He wants that sense of, put your team jerseys on, this is us versus them," Martino said. "And the more that he can convince voters that this is the Democratic machine coming after him, one way or the other, creates that rally effect around him."

Republicans 'don't want to be collateral damage'

The Stevens case from 2008 that led to a guilty verdict for hiding gifts from an oil executive has some parallels with a case against Trump. Days before the election, a federal jury found Stevens guilty of violating federal ethics laws. He lost by just 1%, putting an end to his 41 years in the Senate. Later, his case was dismissed when a Justice Department probe found evidence that the prosecution engaged in misconduct.

The difference with Trump, Persily said, is that he relies more on his base and doesn't wield the same support from middle-of-the-road voters as Stevens had. An indictment won't sway Trump's loyal following, he said, but could grow the number of Republican who say the ex-president will drag the party down and cost them the 2024 election.

While the circumstances surrounding the 2024 primary are uncharted territory, polling shows a cohort of GOP voters has grown weary of Trump and is seeking an alternative.

"Republicans will put up with a lot from Trump, but they themselves don't want to be collateral damage," Persily said. "An indictment would increase the odds of shrapnel hitting them."

Still, analysts warn that it's simply too early to gauge the extent that Trump is politically harmed or helped by a potential indictment, though they add that there could be advantageous ways for opponents to talk about it.

Candidates could seek to contrast themselves with Trump, while avoiding criticizing the party's leader, with arguments such as: "'We thank Donald Trump for making America great again, but we also have to move forward,'" said Doug Heye, a veteran GOP strategist.

GOP rivals could say, "Donald probably didn't do anything wrong, but an indictment is a serious thing," Heye continued, spelling out an approach candidates might take.

So far, candidates Haley and Ramaswamy have condemned the Manhattan grand jury probe and a possible indictment of Trump. For his part, DeSantis lit into Bragg over what he called a politically motivated investigation, yet he highlighted Trump's alleged affair with Daniels, signaling a point of contrast between himself — a young father who has made his family a centerpiece of his public image — and Trump, a two-time divorcé with a reputation for being a playboy and who has faced multiple claims of sexual assault.

"I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair," DeSantis said, doubling down on his remarks in an interview with British TV personality Pierce Morgan.

Trump, displaying his willingness to hit at the jugular in real time, swiftly shot back by raising questions about whether DeSantis might face salacious allegations of his own someday.

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