Donald Trump suffered a new legal blow on Tuesday when he was indicted on federal charges connected to his effort to overturn the result of the 2020 US presidential election.
But even as the criminal proceedings against him pile up, consuming his bid for a new term in the White House, the former president is betting that he can use them to his political benefit, at least in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Trump has placed his defence against federal and state prosecutors at the heart of his campaign ever since he became the first former president to face criminal charges at any level earlier this year.
He has repeatedly cast himself as a victim of political persecution by a corrupt judicial system taking orders from the Biden administration, most recently on Tuesday when his campaign said the latest indictment was reminiscent of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
Trump has also used the indictments to raise cash for his campaign and pay for his legal fees, including for his defence against state-level charges that he falsified business documents, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, and federal charges brought in Florida by special counsel Jack Smith that he mishandled classified documents.
On Tuesday evening, Trump’s website was quickly updated with a new request for more money to keep fighting against attempts to “destroy our movement with YET ANOTHER sham indictment”.
As the legal challenges have mounted, Trump’s base of support within the Republican party has given him the benefit of the doubt, remaining largely loyal to him despite the seriousness of his alleged crimes.
“Every time Trump has legal trouble, his numbers seem to go up,” said Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican pollster. “The truth is, he’s running a masterful campaign using dislike and distrust of the government and his critics to propel him forward.”
Trump still has a commanding lead in national polls of Republican 2024 voters, far eclipsing the backing for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, his closest rival. And in a hypothetical general election match-up against President Joe Biden, Trump is trailing by less than one percentage point, according to the Realclearpolitics.com polling average.
“They thought they were going to indict him with Jack Smith, and he was going to blow up. Or they thought [with] the Alvin Bragg indictment . . . everything was going to blow up,” said Jim McLaughlin, Trump’s pollster. “That didn’t happen. In a lot of ways, it backfired.”
The crimes allegedly committed by Trump in previous indictments were already serious but Tuesday’s allegations added a layer of legal and political peril for him. He was accused of attempting to strike at the heart of US democracy in his effort to stop the certification of the 2020 election result. In brief remarks on Tuesday, Smith all but accused him of stoking the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Trump’s legal troubles connected to the 2020 election result may also be compounded by state-level charges expected to be handed down later this month in Georgia over his effort to change the outcome of the presidential contest there.
But even so, leading Republican rivals, including De Santis, have continued to shy away from criticising Trump for his conduct after his election defeat, and responded only in general terms to the latest indictment. Other contenders for the nomination, such as Mike Pence and Chris Christie, have been more critical.
But while Trump has not suffered much politically from the criminal indictments, they could still strain his candidacy, especially if he faces trials in several jurisdictions next year. He has had to devote a growing amount of time and energy to his own legal defence while spending millions of dollars of funds that could otherwise be used to promote his candidacy.
Florida Republican operative Ford O’Connell said: “Publicly, [the other 2024 candidates] are out there defending him. Privately they have their fingers crossed hoping that it forces him to collapse and they get to sweep in.”
Such hopes have repeatedly been misplaced. Trump overcame damaging testimony during a series of televised congressional hearings on the January 6 attack, and suffered little political fallout from the classified documents probe and indictment, which accused him of mishandling critical national security material.
But many Democrats believe Trump’s legal problems will alienate independent and swing voters in a general election, who turned their backs on his preferred candidates in last November’s midterm elections. And regardless of the political impact, they see Tuesday’s indictment as overdue accountability for his attempt to overturn the election two and a half years ago.
“Our Founders made clear that, in the United States of America, no one is above the law — not even the former president of the United States,” said Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, after Tuesday’s indictment.
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