When the history-making indictment was read out against him in a New York City courtroom on Tuesday, former president and current contender for the Republican nomination in 2024 Donald Trump gained a new title: criminal defendant.
Americans saw a quiet and tense Trump walk into the courtroom under the guard of both the Secret Service and the local police force – whose officers stood behind him during his appearance before a judge, as they do with any other defendant. There, he learned he was facing 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments and “catch and kill” attempts to suppress negative news coverage about his extramarital affair with the adult film star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.
As unprecedented as that was, it has become clear in the hours after his appearance that the fundamental political calculus has not changed for Trump. He remains the most popular man in the GOP, and the break his enemies have long sought between him and the rest of the Republican party seems as distant as ever.
“For those who think this will harm President Trump’s chances at running for the White House in 2024, I have news for you: it won’t,” Kevin Hern, who leads the Republican Study Committee, the influential conservative body that’s the largest ideological caucus in Congress, said following Trump’s court appearance on Tuesday.
“The same people who were outraged over the possibility of Hillary Clinton’s prosecution for obvious crimes are now celebrating yet another witch-hunt against the former president and political opponent of the current president. This type of hypocrisy is disgusting, and it underscores what millions of Americans see as a blatant double standard in our justice system, causing many to lose faith in those institutions.”
The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, may have scored a symbolic victory by being the first to indict Trump, but the trajectory of his prosecution – or other efforts to hold Trump to account – is far from clear. The next hearing in Bragg’s case will be well into the 2024 election season on 4 December, and the months to come will be consumed by pre-trial motions from Trump’s attorneys, who will probably try to get the case dismissed and argue that Bragg waited too long to file his charges, said former assistant US attorney Kevin O’Brien.
Bragg may soon be joined in his pursuit of Trump by prosecutors elsewhere. Special counsel Jack Smith is considering whether to bring federal charges over Trump’s involvement in the January 6 insurrection, the wider Republican effort to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election win and the classified materials discovered by the FBI at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton county, Georgia, is separately investigating attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn Biden’s win in that state, another potential source of legal peril.
If any of those inquiries result in charges, courtroom defendant’s tables could become as familiar to Trump as podiums and packed arenas, even as he presses on with his attempt to return to the White House.
“There may never be an indictment in Atlanta, there may never be an indictment coming out of the justice department, we just don’t know,” O’Brien said. “You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. But it’s possible that Trump could be facing two or three new sets of charges in the very near term. Which is, again, an incredible situation.”
By all indications, many Republican voters still see Trump as their man, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released following the indictment last week, that showed him far and away the most popular among current or potential GOP candidates.
After returning from New York to his Florida home, Trump on Tuesday evening gave an irate address at his Mar-a-Lago resort, where he vented his spleen and declared, among other things, that “our country is going to hell”.
On Wednesday, he made a demand that was sure to sit poorly with his Republican allies. In a post from his Truth Social account, he called for defunding the police, the sort of thing most often heard from progressives demanding criminal justice reform in the United States.
“REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS SHOULD DEFUND THE DOJ AND FBI UNTIL THEY COME TO THEIR SENSES,” Trump wrote. “THE DEMOCRATS HAVE TOTALLY WEAPONIZED LAW ENFORCEMENT IN OUR COUNTRY AND ARE VICIOUSLY USING THIS ABUSE OF POWER TO INTERFERE WITH OUR ALREADY UNDER SIEGE ELECTIONS!”
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