Former President Donald Trump will be indicted for a campaign finance violation involving a payment to buy the silence of a former mistress during the 2016 Presidential election. Although this isn’t the only set of legal charges against Trump, it nevertheless represents a political earthquake some twenty months prior to the 2024 election.
The Extent of the Legal Jeopardy
We don’t yet know how serious Trump’s legal problems are. Unconfirmed reports have suggested as many as thirty felony counts against Trump in Manhattan. Although the full array of charges won’t be revealed until next week, some accounts suggest that the former President could face up to four years in prison.
Trump is a man of extensive means with access to a huge array of legal support, and there is no doubt that he will contest the charges hotly. Wealthy Americans have many avenues to escape legal jeopardy, and just as importantly to draw out legal proceedings for years. It seems unlikely that President Trump will serve any time before the 2024 election. Moreover, even a conviction is deeply unlikely to undermine Trump’s standing amongst his most fervent supporters, who are addicted to persecution narratives despite holding privileged positions in American social and economic life.
We shouldn’t forget that President Trump faces at least three other major inquiries; one involving his effort to fraudulently overturn the 2020 Georgia Presidential election, one involving his possession of classified documents, and one involving deceptive and fraudulent business practices. Any of these charges could move forward more rapidly than the Manhattan prosecution.
Indeed, the example of the Manhattan indictments may affect how aggressively the other localities decide to pursue Trump.
Will the Indictment Help Trump?
Some commentators believe that Trump will benefit politically from the indictment, under the reasoning that Trump’s supporters will interpret it as an attack on them. The political science does not support this belief, as most candidates for public office who run into trouble with the legal system tend to suffer from the association with criminality.
The bigger problem is that Trump leads a minority coalition in American politics that prevailed in 2016 because of quirks in the electoral system. In order to defeat an incumbent President Biden in 2024, Trump needs to expand his electoral base; simply making that base more intense and upset doesn’t necessarily help him. There is no indication whatsoever that an indictment will convince undecided voters to favor Trump, or that it will convince Biden supporters to switch sides. Indeed, the indictment may simply add to the air of criminality that has followed Trump for most of his career, first as a real estate financier, then as a reality television star, and then as President. And let there be no doubt; the great many Americans who intensely dislike Donald Trump and would never consider casting a vote for him as President seems awfully happy that he’s under indictment.
The more interesting question is whether other candidates in the Republican field might benefit from Trump’s legal troubles. Most of the other candidates and potential candidates have already declared their support for Trump and have harshly criticized the behavior of the Manhattan DA. Florida Governor Ron Desantis has gone so far as to offer Trump asylum from extradition, which is good politics if extremely sketchy from a legal point of view. The best hope for the GOP from this situation may be that Trump is fatally damaged in legal and political terms, unable to run in the 2024 election and unable to serve as President. This would allow one of the other contenders to run in his name and to indulge the persecution-complex of Trump’s supporters.
Finally, it is possible that President Trump could win his legal case; as the Wall Street Journal suggests, there seem to be several viable defenses to the charges likely to be filed. Trump would likely benefit politically from such a victory, although he would still face jeopardy from other cases and it is unlikely that his political opponents would judge him as “clean” in the legal sense of the term.
Revenge Coming Soon?
There may be additional long-term fallout from the Trump prosecution. While most legal claims against the Clinton and Biden families are regarded as specious and politically motivated, it is certainly possible that prosecutors in right wing districts may use the Trump indictments as an excuse to seek legal action against Democratic officials. But then the alternative to prosecuting Donald Trump is simply to allow him to commit as many crimes as he wants and to escape jeopardy for any crimes that he has committed in the past. This is obviously not a solution to which the United States can acquiesce. As unpleasant as the consequences may be, Donald Trump should be prosecuted for any crime that a grand jury finds sufficient evidence to produce an indictment. To do otherwise would be to surrender to Trump’s lawless behavior and to encourage his supporters to commit additional crimes in his name.
Author Expertise and Biography
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.