What does a possible indictment mean for Trump’s re-election bid?

Trump expected to see short-term bump as indictment plays into long-held claims of being unjustly targeted.

A supporter of former President Donald Trump waves to passersby outside of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Evelyn Knapp, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, waves to passersby outside of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida [Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press]

Former United States President Donald Trump has seized on a possible indictment in New York as evidence of a “witch hunt” against him, declaring in an email to supporters that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is “a woke tyrant who has politicised the justice system”.

The latest all-caps messaging on Monday underscores the unique political moment the former president has found himself in, according to analysts. As he runs for a second term, Trump faces possible criminal charges related to hush money paid to an adult film actress.

On Saturday, Trump claimed he will be arrested on Tuesday and called on supporters to “take our nation back”. There has been no official confirmation about an arrest or its timing, however.

An indictment, though, “will basically prove the Donald Trump theory since 2015”, said Republican strategist Lenny McCallister, alluding to the ex-president’s belief that the government establishment is pitted against him.

McCallister added that a pending indictment would likely compound support among Trump’s most loyal followers.

“He has said he is there to drain the swamp. The swamp is threatened by him. And it’s been a war with the swamp ever since,” McAllister told Al Jazeera. “And people that believe that narrative will see this indictment as being further evidence of that.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president for political studies at the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington, DC, added that the indictment dovetails with Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.

In Trump’s telling, “the deep state, having unfairly deprived him of the 2020 re-election victory he deserved, is now doing its best to take him out of the 2024 contests,” Kabaservice said.

“I think he actually kind of needs this indictment in a way. It’ll boost his visibility. It will force possible competitors like Ron DeSantis to say this is unfair, Trump is being treated badly,” he explained. “And it’ll give him that kind of aura of martyrdom that he craves.”

Indeed, DeSantis deployed language similar to Trump’s on Monday when he accused Bragg, a Democrat, of “pursuing a political agenda and weaponising the office”.

Former Vice President Mike Pence also criticised the investigation, despite having publicly distanced himself from Trump since the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021.

Pence told the conservative Breitbart news network that the case “reeks” of “political prosecution”, comparing any possible indictment with the first impeachment proceedings Trump faced while in office.

At the time, Trump was accused of attempting to coerce Ukraine by offering weapons in exchange for politically damaging information about his rival, Democrat Joe Biden.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy also threw his weight behind Trump, tweeting he was “directing relevant committees to immediately investigate” whether federal funds were going to “politically motivated prosecutions” that could shift the outcome of the 2024 election.

Help or hurt?

The increased attention is all but assured to give Trump “a bit of a bump and sympathetic support” in the short term, according to Rina Shah, a former political adviser and Republican strategist.

But with the first Republican primaries not scheduled for nine months, any eventual trial may still have unexpected consequences.

“The minute that clear evidence is presented by Alvin Bragg and his team, I believe what will happen is a criminal Donald Trump will be presented and thrust into the national spotlight,” she said.

That may alienate the so-called “maybe Trump” bloc of the fractious Republican party. That segment of voters — seen as wishy-washy in their support of the ex-president — proved particularly influential in November’s midterm elections when Trump-backed candidates saw lacklustre results.

Added Republican strategist Adolfo Franco: “If there really is significant legal jeopardy down the pike, then I think the tide can easily turn against President Trump as not a viable candidate for the general election.”

Conversely, if the charges are dropped against Trump or he is found innocent, his 2024 presidential campaign may be strengthened, he told Al Jazeera. Trump is currently leading in early polls against presumptive Republican challengers.

According to Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center, Trump is likely hoping that the indictment “will inoculate him” against the other criminal investigations he currently faces.

In Georgia, prosecutors are currently looking into alleged efforts to overturn the state’s election results, and the US Department of Justice is also conducting a probe into whether the ex-president interfered with the transfer of presidential power.

Compared with those investigations, Kabaservice believes the stakes are lower in the hush-money case. “I think it also, in a sense, is the least damaging [of all the criminal investigations], given it is about sex and personal issues and not abuse of government and the constitution,” he said.

Still, the fact that a possible indictment is not being viewed as a political death blow speaks to how uniquely the former president has transformed US politics, Kabservice noted.

“There once would have been a time when Donald Trump getting indicted would have seemed like a big deal, like: Surely this will be the end of Trump’s political career,” he said. “Now I think, if anything, it will have an energising effect on Trump. And I don’t think it will lead to any negative consequences.”

Source: Al Jazeera