The weekend has arrived, and Donald Trump, contrary to his predictions, has not been indicted. He has nonetheless used this possibility to make himself the center of attention of both the legal and political worlds, offering a window into his campaign strategy while highlighting the dangers he poses to the stability of the country.
Trump predicted a week ago that he would be indicted by a New York grand jury for his role in the payment of hush money to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. The investigation, led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, does appear to be nearing a decision point, with the grand jury scheduled to meet again Monday.
In typical fashion, however, Trump didn’t wait for the grand jury to speak, calling on his followers to stage protests in an echo of what he had tweeted ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol (“Be there. Will be wild.”). On Friday morning, the former president posted an even more troubling message on Truth Social, calling Bragg “a degenerate psychopath” and warning of “potential death and destruction” if he is indicted in connection with what he termed “a false charge.”
In the past, statements like that were not taken seriously enough. But after his lies about the 2020 election, the storming of the U.S. Capitol and everything else he has done to undermine the integrity of the voting process, that’s no longer possible. No one today discounts the possibility of violence surrounding the former president or instigated by him.
His call for protests prompted law enforcement officials in New York to erect security barriers around the criminal court complex. His declarations on Friday led House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) to warn that Trump’s “reckless, reprehensible and irresponsible” rhetoric could “get someone killed.”
For much of the week, commentators chewed over the question of whether an indictment in this case, given the unprecedented nature of a former U.S. president’s being charged with a crime, would help or hurt Trump politically.
Numerous times, Trump has faced serious allegations without paying much of a price in his political standing, especially within his party. He was twice impeached (and twice acquitted). He weathered the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign, an inquiry that some of his adversaries believed would have taken him down.
He’s facing three other legal probes now. One involves the attack on Jan. 6, another his effort to overturn election results in Georgia and the third his possession of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. All three are weightier than the New York case.
Trump carries plenty of baggage as he tries to return to the Oval Office. He lost the 2020 election to President Biden. His endorsements of flawed candidates in 2022 and his continual lies about the 2020 election contributed to what turned out to be a disappointing midterm election for the Republicans. Many in his party would prefer to move on, and most voters know where they stand on him.
Trying to anticipate his strength or weakness in the fall of 2024 is risky. But viewed in the context of the gathering 2024 Republican nomination contest, the past few days have shown that indictments or threats of them can boost him, at least temporarily. The fact that Trump is leaning in so energetically shows he believes the same thing.
Republican elected officials almost uniformly leaped to his defense, denouncing the Manhattan district attorney, a Democrat, as motivated purely by politics. Some of the attacks on Bragg from Trump’s followers have antisemitic overtones, another outgrowth of Trump’s influence.
House Republicans responded to Trump’s appeals by trying to put Bragg in the dock. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter asking Bragg for documents and testimony about his investigation, stretching the definition of legitimate congressional oversight.
The district attorney in his response reminded House Republicans of the respective roles of the legislative and judicial branches of government; the risks of interfering with an ongoing criminal investigation; and a federal system that draws lines between the roles and responsibilities of state and local governments vs. the government in Washington, as he invoked New York’s sovereignty to reject the request.
The demand for Bragg’s cooperation underscored Trump’s proactive effort to make himself a victim even before the grand jury decides whether to indict him on criminal charges. It also has the desired rally-round effect, and it further abetted Trump’s desire to make every legal threat — and the New York case is perhaps the least significant in terms of the seriousness of the pending investigations — into a political fight.
Even Trump’s potentially strongest but unannounced rival for the 2024 nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, eventually came to his defense. DeSantis denounced Bragg’s actions as politically motivated, although he got in a dig at Trump, saying that he doesn’t know “what goes into paying hush money to a porn star.” While it seemed a clever way of tweaking the former president while attacking the Manhattan district attorney, it was a reminder of how Trump manages to force others to dance to his tune.
Republican strategists see another benefit for Trump in the short run: the equivalent of millions of dollars of free advertising because of all the media attention he is receiving. It also sends the message that Trump remains the dominant force in the Republican Party. In 2016, cable television carried his early rallies live, giving him so much attention that his rivals were smothered, leading to early casualties in that campaign.
The week’s events underscored the kinds of choices that lie ahead for Trump’s rivals, principally DeSantis. The Florida governor had planned to concentrate on his state’s legislative session, after which he would move to a formal announcement of candidacy. That’s still the rough plan, but he has been dragged into playing both defense and offense, perhaps earlier than he anticipated, because of Trump.
On his book tour, DeSantis has looked unsteady at times. He is trying to make this a character test, his discipline against Trump’s erratic behavior, but he has not been disciplined in explaining his position on Ukraine. To defeat Trump, he must show the kind of strength as a candidate that Trump has shown since he started running in 2015. He will have to run against Trump to beat him.
Trump’s first campaign was one like no other, a campaign that defied history and conventions. The 2024 campaign shapes up as another like no other, but this time because he is simultaneously dealing with serious legal issues while waging a fight for his party’s nomination and the possibility of a rematch with Biden in the fall of 2024.
A Republican who supports him said that, under these circumstances, there is only one political strategy for Trump: attack, attack, attack. The former president will continue to try to turn every legal investigation into a political fight, as he has done since he became president. He will play victim and demand that his party defend him against the Democrats, the legal system, the left and the media.
The short-term benefits were on display this past week. But is that enough to convince Republicans that he should carry their banner into the general election in 2024?