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How an indictment could affect Trump in 2024

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on March 4 in National Harbor, Md.  (Anna Moneymaker)
By Aaron Blake Washington Post

The day many Americans have been anticipating might soon be upon us, with news that the Manhattan district attorney has invited Donald Trump to testify before a grand jury next week if he chooses. Such a big step is often a precursor to an indictment.

It’s not a foregone conclusion, but the most likely charge or charges would seem to involve former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s 2016 hush-money payment to the porn star Stormy Daniels, who claimed an affair with Trump (Trump denies it). Cohen and the Justice Department implicated Trump in the scheme years ago, and prosecutors appear focused on Trump’s alleged role in falsifying business records to conceal it.

The situation – as detailed by Philip Bump here – could result in a highly unusual circumstance: not just a former president being indicted, but one who is seeking a return to that office.

And the logical question to ask is: How might it affect Trump’s 2024 prospects?

There are a few things we can say.

The first is to emphasize that much obviously depends on how the case shakes out. We can look at how people view Trump and the particulars of the hush-money payments today. But at least a fair number of views will be responsive to what happens next. That includes how serious the charges are – falsifying business records is a misdemeanor, but it can be upgraded to a felony if certain other things are proved – how convincing the evidence is, and whether Trump is ultimately convicted.

An indictment certainly could play into Trump’s long-running and often successful effort to convince his base that the “deep state” is out to get him. But, as we saw in the 2020 and 2022 elections, Trump’s base isn’t necessarily sufficient to win a general election, and the news very notably comes amid increasing GOP worry about Trump’s electability.

Let’s take each of those things separately.

There is an emerging strand of conventional wisdom that an indictment could create a rallying behind Trump in the GOP nominating contest. The vast majority of Republicans don’t believe Trump committed a crime in the hush-money case or any of his various controversies, and this would certainly play into Trump’s efforts to argue that his critics seek to take him down by any means necessary.

A January 2021 poll found that 58% of Republicans agreed that “unelected government officials in Washington, D.C., referred to as the ‘Deep State’ ” worked to undermine the Trump administration. Throw in the fact that this prosecution would be brought in heavily Democratic New York City, and you pretty much know how Trump would try to play this to his advantage.

On the flip side, support for Trump in early 2024 GOP primary polls has been slipping. And the reason for much of that slippage seems clear: They still like him, but they also worry about his electability. While a majority of Republicans used to believe that Trump was the party’s best hope in 2024, a November poll showed GOP voters thought “someone else” had a better shot, by 54% to 35%. And many Republicans have found their “someone else” in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who cruised to re-election by 19 points in November in a former swing state.

It’s entirely logical to think that, however much GOP voters might buy into Trump’s “deep state” persecution message, they might reason that the stakes are simply too high to take such a risk. And even if they might deem the hush-money scheme to be small-bore, what about the special counsel investigation on classified documents and Jan. 6 that also looms? And what about the possibility of 2020-related criminal charges in Fulton County, Ga., which until Thursday was the jurisdiction that seemed closest to a potential indictment?

And that goes double if Trump’s legal fate is still in the balance as voting begins. These processes take a long time. Voters could be confronted with a choice between taking a supposed principled stand against political prosecutions and making sure they have the best chance of reclaiming the presidency. And even as legal scrutiny of Trump has ramped up in recent months, there’s little evidence of a true rallying effect – including after the Mar-a-Lago search.

As for the general election – should Trump make it there – there’s a plausible argument that this could further damage an already damaged-goods candidate. But convincing people that Trump actually broke the law is no cinch.

Polls have rarely shown the percentage of Americans who believe Trump broke the law cresting a majority. Generally speaking, when pollsters offered a middle-ground option – that Trump merely acted unethically – the percentage of those who agree he broke the law in a specific instance has been in the 30s or as high as the mid-40s.

But those numbers have been rising. Those mid-40s figures came after Jan. 6, 2021, and after the search at Mar-a-Lago in August. And a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September showed Americans said by 52% to 38% that Trump should be charged with a crime related to the special counsel’s investigation, which is probing Jan. 6 and classified documents.

Of course, the potential Manhattan district attorney prosecution doesn’t deal with that; it deals with the hush money. Voters might view that as a smaller matter, relatively speaking, but it also deals with something in which Trump has already been publicly implicated and could include a more explicit paper trail. (That doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult to prove.)

The percentage of Americans who thought Trump broke the law in that case was in the 30s when that was in the news. When it was revealed in December 2018 that the Justice Department had implicated Trump, nearly 8 in 10 Americans thought Trump did something at least unethical.

The key point is that there is a small but significant portion of the GOP base that bought into the idea that Trump did something wrong.

In fact, a majority of Republicans did. While just 7% believed he broke the law, 49% labeled his actions unethical – a very high number, relative to Trump’s other controversies.

That doesn’t mean they believe he should be prosecuted, but the segment of the base that has entertained the idea that Trump has broken the law has risen. In that September Post-ABC poll, 13% of Republicans and 18% of GOP-leaning independents wanted Trump charged in the special counsel’s investigation.

If anywhere near that portion of the GOP base became convinced that Trump broke the law by the evidence in Manhattan, his already difficult general-election math becomes much more difficult. Trump’s 2020 loss was narrower than many people realize, but he has very little margin for error.