Trump indictment over 2020 election puts US in uncharted terrain

Trump indictment over 2020 election puts US in uncharted terrain

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In a post on Truth Social soon after he learned of the new charges, Mr. Trump lashed out at special counsel Jack Smith, calling him “deranged” and accusing him of interfering with the 2024 election by “putting out yet another Fake indictment.” 

The case marks the third time the former president has been indicted this year. He was indicted in June in Florida over his retention of classified documents – with major new charges added just last Thursday – as well as in April in Manhattan over alleged hush money payments to a pornography actor. Many legal experts expect he will soon be indicted in a Georgia case over his effort to reverse the 2020 election result in that state. 

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Even as all this has unfolded, Mr. Trump is running to regain his old office – and is currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 presidential race. Indeed, he has made his legal troubles a central feature of his campaign, arguing that he is the target of a political “witch hunt.”

As the indictments have piled up, the former president’s position in the polls among likely GOP voters has correspondingly risen, and his dominant position shows little sign of being reversed in the wake of the Jan. 6 charges. Many Republican officials have already come to his defense, lambasting Tuesday’s indictment as politically motivated.

“There’s no precedent for anything like this” in American history, says George Edwards, a presidential scholar emeritus at Texas A&M University. 

This extraordinary moment in U.S. politics comes at a time of intense polarization that has shaped voter reactions in dramatically different ways. Many Democrats are likely to view this indictment as long-overdue justice for an attack on American democracy. Many Republicans will see it as further evidence that the legal system has been “weaponized” for partisan purposes.  

The latest Monmouth University poll shows that most GOP-aligned and GOP-leaning voters view Mr. Trump as the strongest candidate to beat President Joe Biden in 2024 – with 45% saying he’d “definitely” be strongest and another 24% saying he’d “probably” be strongest. A New York Times/Siena poll released this week found Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden exactly tied among registered voters, with 43% support for each, although other polls have found Mr. Trump would be a weaker general election candidate than some of his Republican rivals.

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“Trump has successfully pushed a politics of grievance, where the system is out to get you,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth poll, in a statement. “In that light, the criminal charges seem to make him an even stronger advocate in the eyes of many Republicans.” 

Lawmakers largely fell along party lines in their reactions. In a post on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy accused the Justice Department of trying to distract from the legal problems of the president’s son, Hunter Biden.

The Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, asserted in a joint statement that “no one is above the law” and ended with a plea for calm: “We encourage Mr. Trump’s supporters and critics alike to let this case proceed peacefully in court.”

At least one GOP rival argues Mr. Trump’s mounting legal problems could hurt him politically in the long run. The latest indictment spells “short-term gain, long-term pain,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on CNN last week. 

Republican voters may initially flock to the president’s defense, Mr. Christie said – “when there’s a crisis, you rally around your team.” But over time, as details about Mr. Trump’s alleged actions come under increasing scrutiny, “the conduct [behind the charges] is the problem.” That’s likely to be true, he argues, even in the primary. 

Mr. Trump has used his previous indictments to rally his base with populist cries of “I am your retribution” and “I’m being indicted for you.” The latest indictment seems likely to turbocharge that message, as it centers on efforts to overturn the 2020 election result. Polls show that more than 60% of Republicans still believe the election was stolen. 

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At the same time, those arguments seem far less likely to work with politically unaffiliated voters – the fastest-growing portion of the electorate. 

“These indictments aren’t endearing independents to Trump,” says Shana Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University, noting that in the last election, independents were key to Mr. Biden’s victory in pivotal battleground states. This latest indictment “is not the death knell for Trump as the [Republican] nominee,” she says, “but I don’t think all these indictments help him in the general [election] at all.” 

As a practical matter, Mr. Trump’s legal problems are already a significant financial drain, with campaign finance disclosures this week revealing that his political committees have spent tens of millions of dollars on legal fees. The various court appearances could also keep him off the campaign trail, as he works with his teams of lawyers on his defenses. 

It’s also possible some of the cases wind up getting delayed, potentially even until after the November 2024 general election. The federal judge in the documents case has, for now, set a trial date of May 20, 2024 – by which time Mr. Trump could well be the GOP’s presumptive nominee. 

The documents case is seen by many legal analysts as the most straightforward among what are ultimately anticipated to be four criminal indictments of Mr. Trump. Many legal scholars see the Jan. 6 case as far more complicated, and potentially more difficult to prove.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers are likely to argue that “he honestly thought that the election had been mishandled and he wanted to correct it,” says Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. That means jurors will have to weigh Mr. Trump’s state of mind. “There are lots of situations where, depending on the mental state and the facts, somebody is either doing their job – or committing a crime.”

Likewise, former federal prosecutor Eric Fish says the defense on the conspiracy charge is likely to argue that Mr. Trump and his allies “didn’t intend to prevent votes from being counted, but to prevent the fraud that they believed to be happening.” 

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.


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