Why an indictment may actually boost Trump's campaign
Trump claims being indicted is likely to enhance his numbers. For once he's not lying.
I’ve long said I’ll believe Trump is getting indicted when it happens, and not a second before. That moment isn’t here yet, but a New York Times report from last Thursday strongly indicates it’s drawing nearer.
Believe it or not, the case that may finally produce a Trump indictment isn’t the federal one pertaining to his egregious mishandling of classified materials, or the Georgia one about his blatant (and recorded) attempt to bully elected officials into finding votes for him. It’s the Manhattan investigation into a hush payment Stormy Daniels received in the months before the 2016 election.
If the details surrounding the Daniels situation are a little hazy in your memory — and who could blame you, seeing as her story is from the long-forgotten 2018 season of the Trump show — let’s tick through a quick refresher. (I wrote an explainer about the Daniels scandal for Vox in December 2018 that is also worth revisiting.)
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Daniels is an adult film actress who says she had an affair with Trump after they met at a golf tournament in 2006, shortly after he married Melania. Ten years later, she received a payment of $130,000 from longtime Trump fixer/attorney Michael Cohen to buy her silence in the final months of Trump’s ultimately successful presidential campaign. That helped keep things under wraps until January 2018, when news of the hush payment was first broken by the Wall Street Journal and Michael Avenatti (Daniels’s attorney at the time) quickly became a household name.
The issue is that it’s illegal to make an unreported donation of more than $2,700 to a candidate in a general election, and the payment made to Daniels was clearly aimed at helping Trump’s campaign. As a result, Cohen pleaded guilty back in 2018 to a variety of crimes in connection with hush payments made to Daniels and a second woman who says she had an affair with Trump (Karen McDougal). But both in court and before Congress, Cohen testified that he did it at the direction of the then-president.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been investigating Trump’s role in the Daniels scheme. In January, news broke that Bragg’s office was presenting evidence to a grand jury, and then the New York Times dropped a bigger bombshell last week. According to the Times, Bragg’s office offered Trump the opportunity to testify this week before the grand jury. Offers like that “almost always indicate an indictment is close,” the Times reported, adding “it would be unusual for [Bragg] to notify a potential defendant without ultimately seeking charges against him.”
While illegal campaign contributions may not be as big a deal as trying to overthrow democracy, Trump is now facing possible felony charges (and he may also face additional charges in connection with other active investigations). But if you think an indictment would end of his bid to retake the presidency, think again. Trump said earlier this month that he “wouldn’t even think about leaving” the race if charged. Regarding a possible indictment, he boasted that “probably it will enhance my numbers” — and he’s not wrong.
Cameron Joseph, a senior political reporter at Vice News, recently wrote an article with his colleague Greg Walters about how Trump’s legal issues could affect the Republican primary. They note that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans actually went up after the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago last August in connection with the ongoing classified documents investigation. Indeed, in addition to a major fundraising boom, polling from last August showed that the raid actually gave Trump about a 10-point boost over DeSantis among Republican primary voters. Trump is already trying to frame a possible indictment from a liberal DA as just another witch hunt, and considering how much the MAGA base loves to wallow in conspiracy-infused victimhood narratives, it’s not farfetched to conclude that an indictment will also work out to his political advantage, at least in the primary.
“He’s shown that he can effectively rally his base against law enforcement officials by casting their probes as pure politics,” Joseph and Walters write.
To get a better sense of how a Trump indictment could affect his bid to return to office, Public Notice contributor Thor Benson talked last week with Joseph. The conversation took place before news broke about Bragg giving Trump the chance to testify, but it’s still relevant to the broader — and unprecedented — context of a major presidential contender possibly running for office while under indictment.
A transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarify and length, follows.
I assume there isn’t any indictment that would be viewed as legitimate by people on the right at this point.
It’s not just that they won’t be seen as legitimate, they’ll be seen as witch hunts by a large chunk of the Republican base. There’s some history we can look at here that illustrates how willing Republicans have been to go along with Trump. During the 2016 primaries there was the Trump University investigation, and that did not hurt him. Once he was president, he faced a litany of different scandals, including two different impeachments, but he often came out stronger with the base.
After the first impeachment, his poll numbers improved pretty dramatically with Republicans. But they did weaken with independents. I think there’s a little bit of a different situation here because he is in a primary. He’s facing other candidates, including Ron DeSantis, who currently looks like the strongest one facing him. DeSantis is also somebody who appeals to some Trumpy-type voters. But I don’t think Republican voters necessarily think the FBI is legitimate or the DA in liberal Atlanta or liberal New York is aboveboard and nonpartisan.
What they might take into account, and this depends partially on how this plays out, is that Trump has baggage. This is a problem for a loser who lost in 2018, 2020, and 2022. He’s hurt the party. They might think you shouldn’t pick a candidate who has baggage that’s hurting him with independent voters. If the argument becomes that Trump can’t stay out of trouble and this is damaging their chances to defeat Joe Biden, that’s a much stronger argument for Trump’s opponents than any moral one.
There’s a school of thought that part of the reason Trump decided to run again is to avoid an indictment. Do you think politics could impact charging decisions?
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