There’s nothing like an external enemy to unite a disparate group. The Republicans have closed ranks around Donald Trump once the tycoon formally became the first former president in US history to face criminal charges. Trump is expected on Tuesday at the Manhattan courts in New York to answer charges before a state judge.
The indictment on Thursday night in connection with a $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels took most people by surprise. Although Trump had anticipated days ago that he would be arrested, the announcement that the grand jury in charge of the case was going to adjourn until the end of March had led many to assume that a decision would not come so quickly.
But once confirmed, Democrats and Republicans have reacted along party lines. The former, to congratulate themselves that “nobody is above the law.” The latter, to complain that the case against the former president is baseless and politically motivated.
In both cases, there is a delicate calculation behind the reaction: the Democrats want to avoid feeding the aura of victim of political persecution with which the former president and current presidential candidate wants to adorn himself. Asked about the case on Friday as he was leaving the White House for a tour of central U.S. states, President Joe Biden dodged the answer with a laconic “no comment.” His spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre replied in a similar way: “We do not comment on any ongoing investigations from here.”
Among Republicans, the response was a unanimous barrage of criticism against the Manhattan prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat. Support for Trump even came from people who are not exactly his fans. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is no longer on speaking terms with his former ticket partner in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, indicated in an interview with CNN that he considered the indictment “an outrage.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whom many consider Trump’s main potential rival in the Republican primaries and whom the former president calls “Ron DeSanctimonious,” tweeted that “the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head.” He accused the Manhattan district attorney of “stretching the law to target a political opponent” and said that “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances,” alluding to the fact that Trump’s official residence is in Mar-a-Lago, his mansion and golf club in the south of that state.
Clearly, it’s not sympathy for the real estate mogul that’s driving Pence or DeSantis. But the party’s rank-and-file overwhelmingly support the former White House occupant, and no Republican politician wants to antagonize these voters just as the 2024 campaign is about to go into full swing. The polls give Trump an overwhelming 30-point lead over his immediate follower, DeSantis himself (who has yet to confirm whether he will run for president).
In addition, the indictment represents an excellent stimulus for a donation drive among Republican supporters. On Friday, the party began to send emails that portrayed Trump as a political martyr and asked for financial contributions from voters.
Trump himself, a firm believer in the principle that being talked about is always a good thing, even if bad things are being said about you, has not hesitated to take advantage of this situation. For days, even as the former president stirred up social media with warnings that his indictment was forthcoming, campaign workers had been sending messages to his supporters asking for donations.
His daughter Ivanka broke her silence on the case this Friday with a message on social media: “I love my father, and I love my country. Today, I am pained for both.” She added that she appreciates all the voices “across the political spectrum expressing support and concern.”
But if Trump and the Republicans can make a profit from the indictment in the short term, in the long term the picture is less clear. It is true that a candidate with pending charges is not required by law to drop out of the campaign. But a victory in November 2024 involves attracting the vote of independents and the undecided. And this could prove difficult. Trump is facing multiple legal challenges over electoral issues, classified documents in his possession and his role in the Capitol assault, among others. The indictment announced Thursday was the first, but it may well not be the last.
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