Trump’s Legal Problems Are Putting the GOP in a Vise

The investigations highlight all the aspects of his political identity that have alienated so many swing voters.

Picture showing Donald Trump, in front of reporters, shrugging.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

The dilemma for the Republican Party is that Donald Trump’s mounting legal troubles may be simultaneously strengthening him as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination and weakening him as a potential general-election nominee.

In the days leading up to the indictment of the former president, which Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced two days ago, a succession of polls showed that Trump has significantly increased his lead over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, his closest competitor in the race for the Republican nomination.

Yet recent surveys have also signaled that this criminal charge—and other potential indictments from ongoing investigations—could deepen the doubts about Trump among the suburban swing voters who decisively rejected him in the 2020 presidential race, and powered surprisingly strong performances by Democrats in the 2018 and 2022 midterms.

“It is definitely a conundrum that this potentially helps him in the primary yet sinks the party’s chances to win the general,” says Mike DuHaime, a GOP strategist who advises former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a potential candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination. “This better positions [in the primary] our worst candidate for the general election.”

That conundrum will only intensify for Republicans because it is highly likely that this is merely the beginning of Trump’s legal troubles. As the first indictment against a former president, the New York proceeding has thrust the U.S. into uncharted waters. But the country today is not nearly as far from shore as it may be in just a few months. Trump faces multiple additional potential indictments. Those include possible charges from Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis, who has been examining his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in that state, as well as the twin federal probes led by Special Counsel Jack Smith into Trump’s mishandling of classified documents and his efforts to block congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.

“I think I had a pretty good track record on my predictions and my strong belief is that there will be additional criminal charges coming in other places,” says Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I think you are going to see them in Georgia and possibly [at the] federal” level.

The potential for such further criminal proceedings is why many political observers are cautious about drawing too many firm conclusions from polling around public reaction to this first indictment, which centers on Trump’s payment of hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels late in the 2016 campaign.

The multiple legal nets tightening around Trump create the possibility that he could be going through one or even multiple trials by the time of next year’s general election, and conceivably even when the GOP primaries begin in the winter of 2024. In other words, Trump might bounce back and forth between campaign rallies in Iowa or New Hampshire and court appearances in New York City, Atlanta, or Washington, D.C. And such jarring images could change the public perceptions that polls are recording now.

“You are just looking at a snapshot of how people feel today,” Dave Wilson, a conservative strategist, told me.

Yet even these initial reactions show how Trump’s legal troubles may place his party in a vise.

Polls consistently show that Trump, over the past several weeks, has widened his lead over DeSantis and the rest of the potential 2024 field. That may be partly because Trump has intensified his attacks on DeSantis, and because the Florida governor has at times seemed unsteady in his debut on the national stage.

But most Republicans think Trump is also benefiting from an impulse among GOP voters to lock arms around him as the Manhattan investigation has proceeded. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll released this week, four-fifths of Republicans described the various investigations targeting Trump as a “witch hunt,” echoing his own denunciation of them. “There’s going to be some level of emotional response to someone being quote-unquote attacked,” Wilson said. “That’s going to get some sympathy points that will probably bolster poll numbers.”

Republican leaders, as so many times before, have tightened their own straitjacket by defending Trump on these allegations so unreservedly. House GOP leaders have launched unprecedented attempts to impede Bragg’s investigation by demanding documents and testimony, and even Trump’s potential 2024 rivals have condemned the indictment as a politically motivated hit job; DeSantis may have had the most extreme reaction by not only calling the indictment “un-American” but even insisting he would not cooperate with extraditing Trump from Florida if it came to that (a pledge that is moot because Trump has indicated he plans to turn himself in on Tuesday).

As during the procession of outrages and controversies during Trump’s presidency, most Republicans skeptical of him have been unwilling to do anything more than remain silent. (Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a long-shot potential 2024 candidate, has been the most conspicuous exception, issuing a statement that urged Americans “to wait on the facts” before judging the case.) The refusal of party leaders to confront Trump is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because GOP voters hear no other arguments from voices they trust, they fall in line behind the assertion from Trump and the leading conservative media sources that the probes are groundless persecution. Republican elected officials then cite that dominant opinion as the justification for remaining silent.

But while the investigations may be bolstering Trump’s position inside the GOP in the near term, they also appear to be highlighting all the aspects of his political identity that have alienated so many swing voters, especially those with college degrees. In that same NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, 56 percent of Americans rejected Trump’s “witch hunt” characterization and described the investigations as “fair”; 60 percent of college-educated white adults, the key constituency that abandoned the GOP in the Trump years, said the probes were fair. So did a slight majority of independent voters.

In new national results released yesterday morning, the Navigator project, a Democratic polling initiative, similarly found that 57 percent of Americans, including 51 percent of independents, agreed that Trump should be indicted when they read a description of the hush-money allegations against him.

The Manhattan indictment “may keep his people with him, it may fire them up, but he’s starting from well under 50 percent of the vote,” Mike DuHaime told me. “Somebody like that must figure out how to get new voters. And he is not gaining new voters with a controversial new indictment, whether he beats it or not.” Swing voters following the case in New York, DuHaime continued, “may not like it, they may think Democrats have gone too far, and that might be fair.” But it’s wishful thinking, he argues, to believe that voters previously resistant to Trump will conclude they need to give him another look because he’s facing criminal charges for paying off a porn star, even if they view the charges themselves as questionable.

The NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist survey underlines DuHaime’s point about the limits of Trump’s existing support: In that survey, a 61 percent majority of Americans—including 64 percent of independents and 70 percent of college-educated white adults—said they did not want him to be president again. That result was similar to the latest Quinnipiac University national poll, which found that 60 percent of Americans do not consider themselves supporters of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. The challenge for the GOP is that about four-fifths of Republicans said they did consider themselves part of that movement, and about three-fourths said they wanted him back in the White House.

The open question for Trump is whether this level of support, even in the GOP, may be his high-water mark as the investigations proceed. Eisner and John Dean, the former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, both told me they believe that the New York case may be more threatening to Trump than many legal analysts have suggested. “I think that the New York case is much stronger than people perceive it to be,” Dean told me yesterday. “We really don’t know the contents of the indictment, and we really won’t know for a much longer time the evidence behind the indictment.”

Whatever happens in New York, Trump still faces the prospect of indictments on the more consequential charges looming over him in Georgia and from the federal special prosecutor. Dean said that Bragg’s indictment, rather than discouraging other prosecutors to act, “may have the opposite effect” of emboldening them. Trump “has escaped accountability literally his entire life, and it finally appears to be catching up with him,” Dean said. Academic research, he added, has suggested that defendants juggling multiple trials, either simultaneously or sequentially, find it “much harder to mount effective defenses.”

Bryan Bennett, the senior director of polling and analytics at the Hub Project, the Democratic polling consortium that conducts the Navigator surveys, says the potential for multiple indictments presents Trump with a parallel political risk: The number of voters who believe he has committed at least one crime is very likely to rise if the criminal charges against him accumulate. “It’s hard to imagine any scenario where multiple indictments is useful” to him, Bennett told me.

DuHaime and Wilson both believe that multiple indictments eventually could weigh down Trump even in the GOP primary. “The cumulative effect takes away some of the argument that it’s just political,” DuHaime said. Each additional indictment, he continued, “may add credibility” for the public to those that came before.

Wilson believes that repeated indictments could reinforce the sense among Republican voters that Trump is being treated unfairly, and deepen their desire to turn the page from him. He likened the effect to someone living along a “Hurricane Alley,” who experiences not one destructive storm in a season but several. “The weight of a single hurricane blowing through is one thing,” Wilson told me. “But if you have several hurricanes of issues blowing through, you will get conservatives [saying], ‘I don’t know if I want to continue living in Hurricane Alley’ with Trump, and they are going to look at other candidates.”

Given Trump’s hold on a big portion of the GOP coalition, no one should discount his capacity to win the party nomination next year, no matter how many criminal cases ensnare him. And given the persistent public dissatisfaction with the economy and lackluster job-approval ratings for Biden, no one dismisses the capacity of whoever captures the Republican nomination to win the general election.

The best-case scenario sketched by Trump supporters is that a succession of indictments will allow him to inspire even higher turnout among the predominantly non-college-educated and nonurban white voters who accept his argument that “liberal elites” and the “deep state” are targeting him to silence them. But even the heroic levels of turnout Trump inspired from those voters in 2020 weren’t enough to win. For the GOP to bet that Trump could overcome swing-voter revulsion over his legal troubles and win a general election by mobilizing even more of his base voters, Bennett said, “seems to me the highest risk proposition that I can imagine.”