By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
The Donald Trump indictments are coming. First is an anticipated charge by the Manhattan district attorney over Trump’s alleged hush-money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels. But Trump could soon face indictments in higher-stakes cases: in Georgia over efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and possible federal charges over his handling of classified documents and his role in the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol.
Whatever form they take, Trump’s legal entanglements could shake up the presidential race. Republicans might initially rally around the former president as he and his supporters blame the legal action on partisan Democrats. Even Republicans who don’t want Trump to get the party’s presidential nomination, including his opponents, will find it politically convenient to slam the prosecutors.
Yet the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are still nearly a year away, time enough for the initial solidarity to fade if legal matters hurt Trump’s standing with voters.
Conservative media will be making similar calculations. If wall-to-wall coverage of Trump legal proceedings turns out to be ratings gold, they will stick with it and Trump will benefit. But if their viewers would rather hear about woke politics and Hunter Biden, Trump might quickly seem like yesterday’s news. A drop-off in media coverage in turn could dampen Trump’s support among Republican primary voters who like the former president but aren’t sold on him as the 2024 nominee.
If Trump does win the GOP nomination, Republicans will still overwhelmingly support him in the general election. But as we saw in 2016 and 2020, Trump tends to underperform compared with how a generic Republican nominee would do, and the Trump penalty will likely grow if he is under multiple indictments, especially if he is convicted.
It’s easy to imagine someone who voted unenthusiastically for Trump deciding indictments were the last straw. That’s not likely to be a large group, and if the economy sinks into recession there probably wouldn’t be enough of these voters to save Biden. But in a close race? Even an extra 1 percentage point of Republican voters staying home could doom their ticket.
There also is the question of what will be the lasting impact of Trump’s legal travails on American democracy. Some Republicans say an indictment of a former president would set a dangerous precedent. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., on Saturday claimed that “this type of stuff only occurs in third world authoritarian nations.”
Nonsense. It’s true that no president or former president of the United States has been indicted. But Richard Nixon certainly would have been if his successor, Gerald Ford, hadn’t pardoned him. Current or former presidents and prime ministers of several strong, healthy democracies including France, Italy and Portugal have been indicted without anyone thinking it put democracy at risk.
In the United States, there is no shortage of governors, mayors and members of the House and Senate who have wound up in prison, and Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned as part of a plea bargain over corruption charges. As far as I can tell, no one thought that the republic was endangered by those prosecutions. (As many have noted, Trump himself and his campaign had no hesitation about this when they were encouraging “Lock her up” chants about former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and other political opponents.)
Up to this point, the main reason that there hasn’t been a string of indicted presidents and former presidents isn’t because of prosecutorial reluctance; it’s because most occupants of the Oval Office have had a higher regard for the law.
There has been some speculation that a case with any hint of partisanship, real or imagined, would spark retaliation against future holders of high office. I’m skeptical; I don’t think anyone has been holding back on legitimate cases. As much as some political attention seekers might want to start indicting political opponents willy-nilly, there is a reason all those “Lock them up” chants led to nothing. Bringing an obviously spurious case would risk a fiasco in court and a backlash in public opinion.
Indeed, the real danger would be if Trump were handed a get-out-of-jail-free card because of his status, signaling to every elected official and political hopeful that the law doesn’t apply to them. That’s a precedent we don’t need.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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