This Is Not Great News for Donald Trump

Despite what some Republicans are saying, getting indicted is generally a poor political strategy.

Black-and-white photograph of Donald Trump in front of some American flags
Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty

Prominent Republicans disagree about a lot these days, but on one point they have found consensus: Getting charged with a crime would be great news for Donald Trump.

After the former president predicted that he will be arrested in Manhattan tomorrow—a forecast that seems questionable, though an indictment from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg does seem to be imminent—conventional wisdom quickly developed on the right that Trump would be the big winner.

The prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said. “Mr. Bragg, you have helped Donald Trump, amazing.”

At National Review, Rich Lowry announced, “It’s going to be very bad for the country and good politically—at least in the short term and perhaps for the duration—for Donald J. Trump.” (Lowry didn’t bother to offer any basis for this claim.)

The former Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich, now running a pro-Trump super PAC called MAGA Inc., said in a statement that an indictment “will not only serve to coalesce President Trump’s support, but it will become the single largest in-kind contribution to a federal campaign in political history.”

Other Republican contenders for president didn’t make predictions quite so firm, but they either hastened to criticize Bragg or kept their mouth shut, both indications that they see this as a moment of strength for Trump, rather than a good opening to bury their own daggers in a weakened rival’s back.

The immediate spin, backed by so little actual argument, is a bit dizzying and bit déjà vu. Back in the 2008 presidential campaign, when the GOP nominee, John McCain, forgot how many houses he owned, the pundit Mark Halperin became infamous for a prediction: “My hunch is this is going to end up being one of the worst moments in the entire campaign for one of the candidates, but it’s Barack Obama.”

That became a notoriously bad take, but Halperin is unchastened. “You are about to increase the odds that Donald Trump will win another four years in the White House,” he wrote in italics on his Substack. “You could in fact be increasing his chances of winning dramatically, maybe even decisively.

But don’t dismiss Halperin’s prediction because he’s a washed-up source of conventional wisdom who’s been badly wrong in the past. Dismiss it because it makes so little sense in light of what we know now. Politics is contingent and volatile, which means that any prediction about what will happen is worth the pixels it’s printed on. The future here is especially hard to guess because nothing really like it has ever happened. As the Republican pollster Whit Ayres dryly told Politico, “I have never studied the indictment of a former president and leading presidential candidate, … and I’ve never done any polling on the indictment of a former president and leading presidential candidate.”

But the assumption that Trump will profit seems to spring from hubris (among his allies) and self-protective fear (on the part of his critics and rivals). They are operating on a shared, obsolete conclusion that nothing can ever harm the former president. For a long time, this made sense. Despite a series of scandals that would have ended the career, much less the candidacy, of any other politician, Trump won the 2016 presidential election and then embarked on an even more scandal-ridden administration. Yet he seemed to chug away, indifferent to bad press. A narrative of Trumpian invincibility developed as an antidote to callow, wish-casting predictions of walls closing in on Trump.

Caution is understandable, but we know enough now to realize that although Trump is exceptionally resilient, he’s also not invulnerable. In 2018, after he decided to frame the midterm elections as a referendum on him personally, Democrats won big in House and governor elections. In 2020, the House impeached him; when the Senate did not vote to convict, some observers took this as proof that he couldn’t be stopped. But it did damage Trump, and later that year, he lost his reelection bid narrowly but decisively, losing the popular vote for the second time. After his extended attempt to overturn the 2020 election, voters once again punished candidates flying his banner and rallying around his causes in the 2022 midterms.

What charges against Trump are certain to do is inflame his most devoted supporters. They will be furious that anyone would dare try to hold Trump accountable, view it as an act of political persecution, and make a great deal of noise about it. But no one should mistake the vociferousness of this group for size. They’ve always been noisy. They’ve always been a minority: As I wrote in November, we now have multiple demonstrations that an anti-MAGA majority exists among American voters. And now, with the country heading into the 2024 election cycle, Trump alternatives are gaining more traction—most significantly, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Although Bragg has not announced exactly what charges he might bring against Trump, a consensus has developed among legal analysts that the Manhattan case is the weakest and strangest of the several criminal investigations into Trump. The case involves whether Trump attempted to conceal a $130,000 payoff to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film actor who alleges that Trump had sex with her in 2006. In 2016, the then–Trump fixer Michael Cohen arranged a payment to Daniels in exchange for keeping the story private. Trump then reimbursed Cohen in 2017. Prosecutors will probably seek to prove that Trump and Cohen falsified business records to hide a violation of campaign-finance law. (Trump denies the affair and any wrongdoing.)

A case would appear to hinge on some tenuous legal theories, and Trump might well beat the rap. But any suggestion that he’s delighted by this fight is belied not only by his irate response but by common sense. Trump doesn’t want to discuss the underlying facts of this case—there’s a reason, after all, that Cohen paid Daniels six figures to buy her silence in the first place. Beyond that, several other probes—which look from the outside to be more perilous to Trump—are still on deck, regardless of the outcome in Manhattan.

“Look, at the end, being indicted never helps anybody,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a lonely dissident from the GOP consensus, said on ABC News yesterday. Trump could be the Republican nominee in 2024, or even win the White House back, but if so, it will probably be despite any criminal case against him, not because of it.