Donald Trump stepped out of his SUV on Thursday afternoon on to the tarmac of Washington’s Reagan National Airport following a short appearance in federal court. Holding a black umbrella to shield against the summer drizzle, the former president delivered a sharp jab at America’s justice system.
“If you can’t beat him, you persecute him or you prosecute him. We can’t let this happen in America,” Trump said, before heading up the stairs of his aeroplane to fly back to his New Jersey golf club.
The 77-year-old former president is rapidly becoming accustomed to defending himself against criminal allegations. So far this year, he has faced 78 individual charges, ranging from falsifying business documents to mishandling classified documents.
On Thursday — in arguably the most serious case levelled against him — Trump was accused of defrauding America by plotting to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, crimes allegedly committed while he was in office.
Trump pleaded not guilty — as he has done to all the other charges — and the outcome will ultimately depend on the verdict handed down by juries in each of the cases.
But it is now highly likely that Trump — whose entire political persona has been built around chaos and disruption — will be in the dock in multiple trials next year while simultaneously trying to win a new term in the White House.
It is, to put it mildly, an unprecedented set of circumstances for American democracy.
In practice, this means the former president may find himself jetting from rallies, town halls and debates in key states to court appearances in New York, Washington, Miami, and possibly Atlanta — forcing him to burn cash and constantly reinforcing the stigma of being a serial criminal defendant.
But those moments will also give Trump chance after chance to air his grievances and set himself up as a political martyr, fuelling the sometimes explosive anger of his base of Republican supporters.
Many fear an exceptionally combustible contest — as well as one that will be extremely close. According to the latest polling averages assembled by Realclearpolitics.com, Trump has a large advantage over Florida governor Ron DeSantis in the battle for the Republican nomination, and only narrowly trails Biden in a head-to-head match up.
“Most voters do not want to relive the last presidential election,” says Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and co-founder of Rokk solutions, a consultancy in Washington. “But this will be like the last presidential campaign on steroids, and nitroglycerine.”
A relentless legal process
Trump and his legal team have been pushing to delay the trials for as long as possible, to avoid any interference with the race for the White House. But they are unlikely to succeed and the legal process is expected to unfold over the course of 2024, possibly even before the Republican nomination contest has ended.
The case brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg is expected to reach a courtroom in March, while the trial related to Trump’s mishandling of classified documents is expected to begin in Florida in May of next year. It is still unclear when he might face trial in the federal case on the election charges brought this week, or in a likely prosecution on similar charges expected in Georgia. In some instances, Trump may be able to avoid court sessions, but he will not be able to skip them all.
“There is certainly no precedent at a presidential level for this kind of legal exposure,” says Will Thomas, a business law professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s hard enough to run a campaign, much less run a campaign and being a criminal defendant.”
Trump has already been burning through cash — in large part to pay his legal fees — offsetting his otherwise prodigious fundraising ahead of the most crucial months of the campaign. Despite raising more than $50mn in the first half of the year, Trump’s campaign committee and his Save America political action committee spent $57mn over the same period.
“That’s a legal tax on the campaign . . . and with more proceedings the costs will only go up,” Thomas says. “Trump will have more and more trouble convincing donors to open up their wallets if their money is going to be spent on three or four criminal trials.”
But beyond the money there are other big challenges looming for Trump as he campaigns while trying to avoid criminal convictions. One is that his legal strategy could diverge from his political strategy.
“The best legal arguments can be very different from a candidate’s best political arguments,” says Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist. “If his lawyers are saying he was too confused about things to know that he had lost [the 2020 election], that’s not necessarily good for him [politically]”.
There could also be a steady drumbeat of damning testimony from the trials, including from some of Trump’s closest aides and associates, that could reverberate throughout the campaign. The result is unlikely to be politically positive for Trump.
“It’s not going to be very good with swing voters and voters outside his base if you have more than one trial with different sets of testimony that are explosive, and reactions from the Trump team that are explosive, and then you get a guilty verdict, ” says Lux.
But to many Republicans, Trump has an uncanny ability to turn what would be an unsustainable situation for most politicians to his advantage, particularly by tapping into conservative resentment of the federal government.
“Each potential trial is a great way for him to dominate the media and show how the Washington establishment is trying to stop him from becoming president,” says John Feehery, a Republican strategist at EFB Advocacy. “There’s a lot of people who feel oppressed by the justice department and the justice system in this country. The more this stuff happens, the more people believe that it’s coming from the Biden administration, and they are appalled by it.”
“A lot of people don’t feel represented: when they see Trump persecuted, they see themselves persecuted,” says Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and Republican senator Mitt Romney’s chief policy adviser during his 2012 presidential campaign. “There’s no coverage that’s bad coverage . . . with these indictments and this legal trouble [Trump] feels like it’s personally advantageous because at least, people are talking about him,” Chen adds.
The politics of conspiracies
But while that might help Trump in the Republican primary race, it may not work as well, or at all, in the general election. In the 2022 midterm elections, Trump’s preferred candidates in a number of key congressional contests lost, amid a backlash against conspiracy theories about Biden’s victory as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling curbing abortion rights. According to a Monmouth poll released last month, 59 per cent of Americans believe Biden won the election “fair and square” while 30 per cent said it was due to voter fraud.
“The American people have zero sympathy for what happened on January 6 and are animated by fighting back against threats to democracy,” says Eric Schultz, a Democratic strategist. “People do not want to condone the conspiracies around the 2020 election.”
Schultz says the weight of the allegations and the proceedings will hurt Trump in the end and make Biden, who has refrained from commenting on the charges this week, look more responsible. “This split-screen could not be better for Democrats,” he says. “On one hand you have the Republican frontrunner going through the revolving door of courthouses, and on the other you have the sitting president continuing to do his job.”
Some Republicans agree, saying even Trump cannot afford to pin an entire campaign on victimhood. “He needs to be talking about the future of the country and how he will help Americans solve their problems while at the same time managing his own legal peril . . . and he historically does not like to stay on message,” says Bonjean. “The danger for him is that this could be a grievance campaign instead of one that shows a vision better than Biden’s.”
But others are not so sure. Feehery says Trump’s campaign team, which includes top advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, is more stable and effective than it was in previous cycles. “They have been masterful at putting DeSantis on his back foot, palming [Trump’s] biggest rival. They are not like the bozos who ran his other campaigns,” he says.
Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, says there are too many unknown factors in the general election to predict what the political impact will be, but he suggests a Biden win cannot be taken for granted, especially given the flourishing of new technologies in politics.
“AI will be further along: there will be deepfakes flooding the internet and other venues, and opportunities for hostile foreign governments who favour Trump to get involved financially and technologically,” he adds.
Biden remains a relatively weak incumbent president due to his low approval ratings, which could make him easier to oust from the Oval Office. And Beschloss worries that if Trump does win a second term, he could go much further in trying to undermine democratic norms and checks and balances, making the January 6 Capitol attack seem like “child’s play”. One key question that would immediately present itself is whether he could pardon himself.
“What would be the consequences of him becoming president and shutting down all these trials and investigations? He can probably do it but it will probably be challenged. He may go to the Supreme Court, one-third of which he chose,” Beschloss adds.
The US might never get to that point. American voters — including some Republicans — may still end up being completely fatigued by Trump in a way that could yet doom him at any stage of the 2024 election. But for now it looks like Americans should brace themselves for a campaign defined by Trump’s court appearances and his claims of victimhood and persecution.
“It is quite clear that for Americans this is not the general election they want,” says Chen. “But it’s the general election they are going to get.”