The uncanny political resilience of Donald Trump owes a great deal to his unique ability to turn negatives into positives. Now expected to be the first former US president to face criminal charges, a career-ending humiliation for anyone else, he will turn the case into a weapon to burnish his martyr complex and rally his base and other once-enthusiastic, reluctant Republicans to his side.
His prospects for securing the Republicans’ 2024 presidential nomination and even returning to the White House remain improbably good.
Even before the New York grand jury delivers its verdict, the question being debated by political observers was: will an indictment help Trump or hurt him? And his own supporters are briefing, with characteristic chutzpah, that the charges will strengthen him by expanding the 30 per cent-plus base of the party’s uncritical Trumpers with those who may have drifted from him but see the prosecution as a politically motivated, selective persecution by Democratic district attorney Alvin Bragg.
Not helping is the perception fed by Republican commentators that the New York case is the weakest legally, a misdemeanour being wrestled dubiously into a felony by a zealous DA, and the “most trivial”, a “mere” electoral law infraction, out of the potential charges he may yet face. Even the New York Times, no friend of Trump’s, has characterised Bragg’s case as “a low-level felony charge that would be based on a largely untested legal theory”.
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But these are no technical offences. They centre on a €121,000 payment that Trump made through his then-lawyer Michael Cohen in the final days of the 2016 campaign to porn star Stormy Daniels to stop her telling the story of a Trump affair years earlier. Trump later reimbursed Cohen with $35,000 checks using his personal funds, then recorded as legal expenses to Cohen, a long-time, then-reliable crony who once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump.
When a repentant Cohen was convicted in 2018 of facilitating the breach of electoral regulations and a couple of bookkeeping offences, he received a three-year jail term and was finally released early in 2022.
Cohen has testified, and will again in the Daniels trial, that the payments were all made at Trump’s instigation. “Mr Trump called me a rat for choosing to tell the truth, much like a mobster would do when one of his men decides to co-operate with the government,” he told his own trial of the intimidation he faced.
It is difficult to imagine that a New York court would deal less severely with Trump if convicted, however “trivial” the offence.
And there are more legal cases coming down the road, all arguably yet more serious. The justice department is investigating his role in the January 6th mob attack on the US Capitol, his effort to overturn the 2020 election, and the classified documents secreted at his Mar-a-Lago resort. A separate special grand jury investigated Trump’s pressuring of local officials to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia. Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis said at the end of January that decisions in the inquiry were “imminent.”
Trump is facing nothing but uphill battles, all of which will do nothing to expand his appeal outside the party. It is unlikely that many Americans who are not already part of Trump’s base will be inspired to join it because they feel he is being mistreated.
His gamble, however, that the charges will rally support within the Republican Party, whose grassroots still support him, seems to have paid off, partially at least. Even his former VP and potential presidential rival, Mike Pence, denounced by Trump for refusing to block approval in the Senate of his deselection, has criticised Bragg’s “politically charged prosecution”.
“I’m taken aback at the idea of indicting a former president of the United States,” he said.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is the main challenger to Trump’s nomination, took a more subtle approach. Having condemned Bragg, he delivered a broadside against Trump: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
Trump went ballistic, a measure of how much he fears DeSantis, whom he leads 41 to 27 per cent in a comforting but untypical recent poll. He launched a nasty, personalised attack, with a hint of threat, on “DeSanctimonius”, a man he helped make and whose politics are cut from the same cloth.
An astute DeSantis is unwilling to be dragged further yet into an all-out brawl. As Politico’s Alexander Burns points out: “The politicians who best weather scandal are the ones who tell and show voters that they are doing the people’s business while opponents stew in lurid trivia... It is past time to give up the idea that stoking the anger of Trump’s diehard fans is a victory unto itself.”