The indictment of former President Donald Trump on charges of conspiring to overthrow the 2020 election ensures that a federal jury will determine whether he is held accountable for his elaborate, drawn-out and unprecedented attempt to negate a vote of the American people and cling to power.
But it is tens of millions of voters who may deliver the ultimate verdict.
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For months now, as prosecutors pursued criminal charges against him in multiple jurisdictions, Trump has intertwined his legal defenses with his electoral arguments. He has called on Republicans to rally behind him to send a message to prosecutors. He has made it clear that if he recaptures the White House, he will use his powers to ensure his personal freedom by shutting down prosecutions still underway.
In effect, he is both running for president and trying to outrun the law enforcement officials seeking to convict him.
That dynamic has transformed the stakes of this election in ways that may not always be clear. Behind the debates over inflation, “wokeness” and the border, the 2024 election is at its core about the fundamental tenets of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power, the independence of the nation’s justice system, the meaning of political free speech and the principle that no one is above the law.
Now, the voters become the jury.
Trump has always understood this. When he ran for president the first time, he channeled the economic, racial and social resentments of his voters. But as his legal peril has grown, he has focused on his own grievances and projected them onto his supporters.
“If these illegal persecutions succeed, if they’re allowed to set fire to the law, then it will not stop with me. Their grip will close even tighter around YOU,” Trump wrote to supporters on Tuesday night. “It’s not just my freedom on the line, but yours as well — and I will NEVER let them take it from you.”
Trump’s arguments have so far been effective in his pursuit of his party’s nomination. After two previous indictments — over hush-money payments to a porn star and purloined classified documents — Republican voters rallied behind the former president with an outpouring of support and cash.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released this week found that Trump has a commanding lead over all his Republican rivals combined, leading Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida by a 2-1 margin in a theoretical head-to-head matchup. Trump, even as America’s best-known criminal defendant, is in a dead heat with President Joe Biden among general election voters, the poll found.
About 17% of voters who said they preferred him over Biden supported Trump despite believing that he had committed serious federal crimes or that he had threatened democracy after the 2020 election.
The prevailing Republican view is that the charges against Trump are a political vendetta.
Republicans have spent two years rewriting the narrative of the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, reimagining the violent attempt to disrupt the Electoral College vote count as a freedom fight against a Washington “deep state.” The result is that in many quarters of the Republican Party, Trump is more trusted than the prosecutors, special counsels and judges handling the cases against him.
“Even those who were fence sitting or window shopping, many of them are of the belief that the justice system under Biden is simply out to get the former president,” said Jimmy Centers, a former aide to former Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, a Republican who later served as Trump’s ambassador to China. “It has only strengthened his support in Iowa, to the point at which his floor is much more solid than what it was earlier this spring.”
Whether Republicans continue to stand by Trump, as they have for months, remains to be seen in the wake of Tuesday’s indictment.
“At a certain point, are you really going to hitch your whole party to a guy who is just trying to stay out of jail?” asked former Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican who lost her seat when suburban voters turned against Trump in 2018. “There may be another strategy that Republicans could come up with. And if they can’t, I think they lose.”
Strategists supporting rivals of Trump say that over time, the continued charges could hurt his standing with Republican voters, distract Trump from focusing on presenting his plans for the future and raise questions about his electability in the general election.
“Even though people will rally around him in the moment, it starts to erode favorablity and his market share,” said Kristin Davison, chief operating officer of Never Back Down, the super PAC backing DeSantis. “More people will start to look forward.”
Or they may not.
Republicans’ responses to the third indictment have been similar to their complaints about the previous two — if slightly more muted. Loyal allies in Congress have rallied around Trump, blasting the Justice Department while most of his rivals for the party’s nomination declined to directly attack him over the charges.
Richard Czuba, a veteran pollster who conducts surveys for Detroit’s media outlets, said opinions about Trump on both sides of the aisle had long been cased in cement. Like the past three cycles, this election will probably be another referendum on Trump, he said, and the outcome is likely to depend on which side can best drive its voters to the polls — regardless of whether Trump faces three indictments or 300.
“We have to be brutally honest: Donald Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the room,” Czuba said. “If you were with him, you’re with him. If you were against him, you’re against him.”
Still, Democrats are hopeful that in a general election, the indictments might sway some small slice of independents or swing voters. There is little doubt that a steady drumbeat of news out of the various court proceedings will ensure that Trump’s legal troubles continue to dominate the news in 2024. Court appearances and legal filings will compete for attention with debates and policy rollouts.
Biden campaign officials and allies believe they can focus on topics with a more direct impact on the lives of voters — economic issues, abortion access and extreme weather — without explicitly addressing Trump’s issues.
About an hour after news of Trump’s indictment broke, Biden and his wife finished dinner at a seafood restaurant in Delaware, then went to the movies. The president did not address the indictment, just as he had stayed silent after reports broke of the first two.
Still, Democrats believe there will be an impact. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, said prosecuting Trump for his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 attack has the potential to galvanize the country in a way that the other legal cases against Trump do not.
Tens of millions of people tuned in last summer for the hearings of the House Select Committee’s investigation of the Capitol riot, he noted, and Trump’s approval ratings among persuadable voters dropped afterward.
Although a federal trial would not be televised, a steady stream of news may be enough to remind voters of the stakes in electing a candidate who is also a defendant, he said.
“When you see witness after witness, day after day,” Boyle said, “I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that that could end up changing things.”
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