The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘An indictment would help Trump!’ is wholly premature

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg during a news conference in New York on Feb. 7. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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With a decision looming from a New York grand jury and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) regarding an indictment of Donald Trump, likely for keeping false business records, media coverage has repeated ad nauseam speculation that such an indictment would “only help” the former president.

One cannot discount the potential for a temporary Republican rally-around-the-flag reaction if Trump is indeed arrested on charges related to alleged payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels to stop her from revealing, ahead of the 2016 election, their sexual relationship. (He denies the affair.) But an indictment’s long-term impact might be anything but positive.

Yes, some Republicans are parroting criticism of Bragg but, so far, the speculation about a widespread GOP response seems based on an oddly small sample group. Congressional MAGA hotheads Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), along with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), all dutifully lent some rhetorical support. Beyond that, many elected Republicans remained quiet.

On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an all-but-announced Trump 2024 challenger, only belatedly criticized the Manhattan district attorney. However, the governor seemed to delight in repeating the charge that Trump had paid hush money to an adult-film star. A handful of loud MAGA Republicans taking Trump’s side isn’t convincing evidence that the base as a whole is rallying to his side.

Moreover, even McCarthy undercut Trump’s recent desperate call for protests if he is arrested, as the former president predicted. Perhaps recognizing the echoes of Trump’s “will be wild” invitation before the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, McCarthy on Sunday urged Trump supporters to stay home. Dissuading protesters from showing up — surely a letdown for Trump — hardly qualifies as boosting the former president.

Beyond all that, whether an indictment in New York actually would help Trump politically is utterly unknowable. What is known: His core base of support has shrunk, and it’s logical to assume that GOP primary voters nervous about reelecting Trump would hardly be assuaged if he were indicted in this case or perhaps other, more serious ones. The opposite is at least as likely. And if he were convicted in a criminal case and — though charges brought now might not be resolved by November 2024 — I’ll go out on a limb to say there is simply no way Americans would elect someone with a criminal record as president. (I also doubt that Republicans, already straining to find an alternative to the baggage-laden 2020 loser, would risk nominating someone with a criminal record.)

Moreover, the best evidence that an indictment is unlikely to be a boon to Trump comes straight from the horse’s mouth (or keyboard). Trump has issued one unhinged Truth Social post after another, threatening Bragg, inveighing against his enemies and expressing disbelief that New York police would shut down protests. It certainly does not seem as though he thinks this is a political winner for him. And as he emotionally decompensates, his ability to conduct a rational campaign that revolves around anything other than his own victimhood diminishes. He might not be turning into a more formidable candidate, but he’s already a more hysterical one.

Taking a step back, the “this will only help him” view is a bizarre way of converting a story about serious matters such as the rule of law and the lies Trump is accused of making to get elected into a morally neutral, albeit baseless, election prediction exercise. In the host of issues to be explored — including whether a hush-money payoff to Stormy Daniels affected the 2016 election, and the role of local prosecutors in holding Trump accountable — it’s strange that media coverage would devote so much attention to one most likely to infuriate Trump opponents and energize Trump defenders.

In all this, I did not expect the voice of sanity to come from former New Jersey Republican governor and occasional Trump ally Chris Christie. “What else do you expect Trump to say ... than to say it helps his campaign,” he said on ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday. “But, being indicted I don’t think ever helps anybody.” This view should be taken seriously, coming from a former prosecutor and longtime observer of Trump’s psyche.

Unfortunately, the media seems almost entirely credulous in airing the exact view Trump wants pushed — as happened too often in the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. That raises the possibility of a temporary self-fulfilling boost for Trump. His poll numbers might spike, but that says little about his ability to navigate through a primary season under the shadow of a criminal case, and possibly civil or criminal charges stemming from other current investigations. Going forward, further legal developments should prompt more sober analysis than we’ve seen so far.