Here’s an old chestnut that’s been threatening to become conventional wisdom in recent weeks: Any indictment of former President Donald Trump helps his chances in a presidential election.
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This view has been repeated in multiple rounds of analysis and reporting over the years, any time accountability for Trump becomes a topic of interest, from the Russia investigation to impeachment to the Jan. 6 committee. And it has risen once more as Trump faces possible charges in relation to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation of a 2016 hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
But from where I’m sitting, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the claim that trying to strike Trump down will only make him more powerful. Instead, it seems more like the result of a feedback loop between Trumpworld and MAGA voters that deserves much more skepticism than it has been getting.
MAGA supporters see and hear that message and are happy to repeat it back when asked.
While there’s some reasonable concern about the potential chilling effect of a failed indictment, that’s not what Trump supporters are saying when they make the case that an indictment would be a net positive for the former president. They point to the failed impeachments and numerous previous investigations. They point to Trump’s claim of political persecution as a mainstay of his image and say any indictment would similarly bolster that claim. They claim that actually Trump’s team is “pumped” about the possibility of an indictment and an arrest.
“Of course, no one wants to be indicted, but it is helpful politically and legally it’s not even that much of a threat because the case is so weak and looks nakedly political,” the Daily Mail quoted one “member of Trump’s inner circle” as saying. Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina argued in an interview with “Good Day New York” that an indictment would “embolden him and embolden his supporters.” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., chair of the House Republican Caucus and prominent Trump coattail rider, insisted to The New York Times that an indictment from Bragg “only strengthens President Trump moving forward.”
Even New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who isn’t exactly Trump’s biggest fan, thinks as much. The Stormy Daniels case is “building a lot of sympathy for the former president,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. His evidence? None of the people he’d had coffee with that morning “were big Trump supporters, but they all said they felt like he was being attacked.”
MAGA supporters see and hear that message and are happy to repeat it back when asked. At a Trump rally in Iowa last week, attendees told NBC News’ Jonathan Allen they were sure their guy would come out on top if charged. In a Fox News man-on-the-street segment recorded in New York City, one Trump supporter called a potential indictment “great,” since “it will give him more notoriety and his base will get even stronger.”
But when you press beyond the cycle between MAGA preachers and their faithful, there’s little evidence to back up the idea that Trump benefits in the long term from an indictment. For one, as MSNBC host Jen Psaki pointed out Saturday, this is deeply unprecedented territory. For all the Trump scandals and lawsuits and investigations over the years, “he’s never been indicted before.”
While things very well may change if and when charges are announced, the odds of Trump’s getting a boost broadly from an indictment seem slim. His recent improvements in 2024 primary polls predate possible charges. A GOP operative told Allen that while an indictment “absolutely helps President Trump going into a primary … I’m not so sure what it does in a general” election.
There’s little evidence to back up the idea that Trump benefits in the long term from an indictment.
That tracks with the analysis from The New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who wrote Tuesday that “it’s a little much to argue that many Republicans who don’t support him for the nomination today would be far likelier to back him after an indictment,” adding, “It could certainly energize his base, but an indictment would reinforce some of the reasons other Republicans are reluctant to back him in the first place.” And when you look at the aftermath of the FBI’s search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago last year, any temporary boost he got from his cries of “raid” quickly dissipated.
There’s also no way to really tell what happens if Trump winds up facing multiple charges in multiple jurisdictions. While the Bragg investigation is the timeliest, the Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith, is still looking into both Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and the classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. And in Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis continues to investigate 2020 election interference in the state — a probe Trump’s lawyers are still trying to quash. It’s hard to see how three separate trials would be a net positive for him, especially among voters whose support he failed to get in 2020.
If Trump and his team were really confident that the blowback would help his image, then you’d think they’d be relishing the chance to make their case in court. But all indications show that Trump is “deeply anxious about the prospect of an arrest,” as The New York Times put it. The public assurances from his hangers-on seem less like true confidence and more like attempts to soothe his anxieties. We’ve long known that any television appearance by a Trump crony really has an audience of one and that he will undoubtedly be watching the performance. But we shouldn’t mistake fodder to assuage a man-child’s ego for political truth.