The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An indictment would help Trump. Maybe that’s what Democrats want.

Former president Donald Trump boards his airplane on Feb. 22 in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

Former representative Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) understands the cynical depths to which Democrats will go to win elections. After he voted to impeach Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, Democrats spent $425,000 on ads to boost Meijer’s election-denying, Trump-backed MAGA opponent in the GOP primary as a “poison pill” candidate — and helped him defeat Meijer. So, we should listen when he warns that indicting Trump over alleged hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels would be “a billion-dollar gift-in-kind from Democrats to Trump’s ’24 campaign.”

Gov. Chris Sununu (R) of New Hampshire — another state where Democrats backed a pro-Trump MAGA candidate they then went on to defeat — says “a lot of the Democrats have misplayed this in terms of building sympathy for the former president.”

But have they?

The legal case against Trump is incredibly flimsy. As constitutional lawyer Jonathan Turley correctly points out, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg is taking a charge “that has a statute of limitations of two years and trying to bring it back to life seven years later” while attempting to “litigate a federal crime that the federal government didn’t feel needed to be litigated” — all in the run-up to a presidential election. It is, Turley says, a “patently political prosecution.” No one not named “Donald Trump” would be indicted on these charges.

Who knows, maybe a New York jury would find Trump guilty anyway — or if it did, maybe the case would be overturned on appeal. It is unlikely Trump would ultimately be convicted of a felony, and thus disqualified from the presidency. But this much is certain: Indicting Trump will cause many Republicans, including some who have been open to a different nominee, to rally around the former president and help him win the GOP nomination. And that may be exactly what many Democrats want.

Jennifer Rubin: ‘An indictment would help Trump!’ is wholly premature

Democrats have won the past two elections running against Trump. In 2020, Biden won not by convincing Americans they needed more government spending and open borders, but by promising a Trump-exhausted electorate that he would end the chaos and unite the country. Then, in the 2022 midterms, Democrats successfully papered over the serial disasters unleashed on Biden’s watch — including the worst inflation in 40 years, the worst murder wave since the 1990s and the worst border-security crisis in U.S. history — by running against, and in some cases spending tens of millions of dollars amplifying, Trump-backed MAGA candidates. If Trump wins the 2024 GOP nomination, Democrats have good reason to believe they can win a third election running against him.

A Trump indictment would help them do so in two ways: First, it would increase Trump’s toxicity with swing voters. A trial would provide them with a daily reminder of his moral turpitude — how he allegedly had an affair with a porn star while his wife was pregnant and then paid her to cover it up. And it would give Trump ample opportunities to further repulse them with outrageous diatribes against what he calls the “Stormy ‘Horse Face’ Daniels extortion plot.” As Rep. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from North Carolina, told Fox News, “In a general election, we’re talking about roughly 200,000 swing voters … spread across five states, who are going to pick the next winner …I don’t think there’s any universe in which they see this underlying behavior with respect to the affair and the hush money … and give a thumbs up to that.”

Second, an indictment would encourage Republicans to nominate the man Democrats consider the most beatable candidate. Most Republicans — including those open to supporting another GOP nominee in 2024 — don’t share the left’s hatred for Trump. A January USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 74 percent of Republican voters had a favorable view of Trump. But right now, 74 percent of Republicans are not supporting Trump’s candidacy. That’s because his shameful conduct after the 2020 election, and his disastrous 2022 midterm performance, convinced many that it was time to move on.

Ruth Marcus: 3 intersecting truths drive the Trump hush-money case

If Trump is indicted, that could change. Even Republicans who don’t love Trump object to seeing the justice system weaponized to go after political opponents. Most believe Trump has been treated unfairly. They saw former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible collusion with Russia (which turned out to be little more than a conspiracy theory) and Trump’s impeachment trials. Then they saw the FBI raid Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home over his mishandling of classified documents — only to learn later that classified documents from Biden’s tenure as vice president had been found in Biden’s D.C. office and his Delaware home. And now they see a Democratic district attorney preparing a blatantly political prosecution of the former president to stop him from being reelected.

That could convince enough Trump-skeptical Republicans to back the former president. And that could give Democrats their best shot at winning the White House in 2024.