Even if former President Donald Trump is indicted for a third time, his dominance of the Republican White House race is unlikely to be shaken because of his years of shattering its voters’ trust in institutions that challenge his power.
The Republican frontrunner has maneuvered his major rivals into an impossible position: a tortured balancing act of trying to take advantage of Trump’s liabilities without alienating his devoted supporters in the primary.
If they fail to criticize his multiple misadventures, they ignore a factor that could undermine their party’s possible general election candidate. But so far there’s no sign that two and possibly more trials looming over Trump will convince most GOP primary voters he’s too much of a risk to nominate.
The ex-president’s skill in turning the GOP primary battle into a political Catch-22 helps explain why no one in the party’s bloated field of presidential hopefuls has yet reached critical momentum in a bid to deprive him of a third successive Republican nomination.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all cases. But the failure of rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence to exploit the possibility of potential Trump convictions also raises a perilous question for their party. Does the GOP risk nominating a candidate beloved by millions of its partisans but who could again scare moderate, swing states voters and hand victory to Democrats?
The dilemma of GOP candidates over how to treat Trump will be highlighted Friday evening when most of the field is expected at a Republican Party dinner in Iowa, the first state to vote in the nominating race early next year. With Trump threatening to boycott the first GOP debate next month, the gathering could be a rare chance to compare the front-runner and his foes at the same event.
The GOP nominating race has effectively been frozen since last week as Trump and his adversaries wait to see whether special counsel Jack Smith will indict the former president in his criminal investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump announced on his social media platform he had received a target letter, which usually leads to charges.
Any conventional political candidate in such a position would have seen their hopes of the White House extinguished years ago. Yet the twice-impeached, already twice-indicted Trump, the first president to challenge the US tradition of peaceful transfers of power, appears as robustly popular as ever among Republicans.
In a CNN/SSRS poll last month, he had the support of 47% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. DeSantis was at 26% and no other candidate cracked double figures. Trump also benefited from fundraising spikes after previous indictments, according to a CNN analysis of itemized donations larger than $200.
While Trump’s campaign is pushing a narrative that his legal problems are all a result of politicized investigations designed to keep him from power, his current strength is not simply a short-term reaction to adverse events. It is rooted in his years of undermining legal, political and media institutions that tell a fact-based version of events that conflict with his own falsehoods.
Ever since he jumped into the 2016 presidential race, Trump has constructed an alternative reality for his supporters that remains the key to his political shield in the GOP now. The former property tycoon and reality star shot to power by serving as an avatar for resentment against perceived elites and Washington institutions.
His work to undermine elections, meanwhile, goes back years. He, for example, claimed massive fraud that robbed him of a popular vote victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite winning the presidency. In his first hours in the White House, Trump accused the media of falsely underestimating the size of his inaugural crowd. In hindsight, this was a first bid to use the power of the presidency to tarnish the Washington media and poison the very notion of truth among his supporters.
This campaign peaked with his admonition to supporters in 2018 to ignore facts-based journalism with the words: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Trump also constantly discredited government centers of power that sought to hold him in check, clashing frequently with the Justice Department and the FBI during the Russia investigation. Now, the bureau – one of the most historically conservative agencies in the US government – is viewed with contempt by GOP voters, meaning that its investigations into Trump, over his hoarding of classified documents at his Florida resort and his behavior in the run-up to the Capitol insurrection, are immediately seen as biased by his supporters.
Most GOP candidates have now vowed to sack FBI Director Christopher Wray despite the fact he’s a Republican serving a 10-year term meant to insulate him from political interference. Smith has meanwhile become the latest law enforcement figure, following previous special counsel Robert Mueller, fired FBI Director James Comey and Wray to feel the lash of Trump’s tongue. “These are evil people. Deranged, I call them deranged,” the ex-president said last week of the special counsel and his team.
As president, Trump built his bond with voters by behaving like an insurgent inside his own administration, never forgetting that his appeal relied on not becoming the kind of establishment figure that they disdained. He hounded conservatives who spoke out against his assaults on the Constitution and the law — like ex-Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
Pro-Trump House Republicans now hold hearings designed to prove his claims that the government is politically weaponized against him. And in a sign of his enduring power, Trump secured agreement from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to consider legislative moves to expunge his two impeachments – even though such votes would be constitutionally meaningless. Former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mocked McCarthy in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, saying “Donald Trump is the puppeteer. And what does he do all the time but shine the light on the strings?” She added: “These people look pathetic.”
While Trump promises he’s running to “save America,” his campaign increasingly looks like one to save himself as he is the first former president in US history to be indicted. It happened initially in a case arising from an alleged hush money payment made to an adult film actress and then over alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving office.
His legal strategy has become indistinguishable from his political one as he and his lawyers argue that every case against him is an example of political persecution designed to keep him from reclaiming the White House.
He also has doubled down on the appeal that swept him to power in the first place – the idea that he’s taking the heat to protect his supporters from a deep state, swampy government they despise while promising “retribution” if he wins a second term.
“Every time the radical left Democrats Marxist Communists and Fascists indict me, I consider it a great badge of courage,” Trump said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington last month. “I’m being indicted for you, and I believe the ‘you’ is more than 200 million people who love our country.”
Despite the danger for rivals of openly criticizing Trump, there may be a small opening for them. Some polls, for example, show substantial numbers of GOP voters who liked his presidency are open to supporting someone else. But full-throated criticism doesn’t play. The most outspoken critics in the race, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have so far performed poorly in GOP primary polls
DeSantis tried to finesse this conundrum by implicitly criticizing Trump over his swirling scandals and by claiming he’d be more effective in implementing Trump-style policies than the former president himself.
In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN last week, he suggested Trump’s obsession with the past left his party stuck there too. But DeSantis also assures Trump voters he’s not piling on the ex-president. He told Russell Brand on his podcast last week that the January 6, 2021, mob attack on Congress by Trump supporters was not an “insurrection” or a “plan to somehow overthrow the government of the United States.”
Haley has been more explicit in declaring Trump a general election liability, saying last week, “That’s why I am running … because we need a new generational leader. We can’t keep dealing with this drama or dealing with the negativity. We can’t keep dealing with all of this.”
Pence has a near impossible task, seeking to claim credit for the “Trump-Pence” administration while rebutting Trump’s claims that he had the power as vice president in 2021 to reverse the election result in Congress. Pence tried to thread this needle on “State of the Union” on Sunday by raising a feeling among Republicans that Trump isn’t getting equal treatment under the law.
But he added: “Let me be very clear: President Trump was wrong on that day. And he’s still wrong in asserting that I had the right to overturn the election.”