How Trump's indictment boosts his primary chances

Biden, too, benefits from the Manhattan legal drama

US-POLITICS-TRUMP-INDICTMENT Opportunity in crisis: Former US president Donald Trump after his court appearance over an alleged ‘hush-money’ payment | AFP

On December 3, 2019, senator Kamala Harris announced that she was dropping out of the presidential race, conceding that she no longer had a viable path to the White House. The response of Donald Trump, the sitting president and the Republican nominee for reelection, was, as usual, brutal and sarcastic. “Too bad. We will miss you, Kamala,” tweeted Trump. Harris, however, had the last word. “Don’t worry, Mr President,” she replied. “I’ll see you at your trial.” Her barb turned out to be prophetic as Trump was arraigned as a defendant in a Manhattan courthouse on April 4.

The last US president before Trump to suffer the ignominy of getting arrested was civil war hero Ulysses S. Grant―for racing his horse-drawn carriage on a busy street in Washington, DC, back in 1872. He was taken to a police station, fined $20 and released. The policeman who arrested Grant was an Afro-American civil war veteran, William H. West. Today, Trump is being prosecuted by Alvin Bragg, the Afro-American district attorney of Manhattan. But unlike Grant, Trump may find it hard to get away easily.

The Manhattan case could increase the possibility of subjecting presidents to frivolous prosecution once they leave office.

After Trump turned himself over to authorities in Manhattan, the New York supreme court charged him with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to conceal damaging information during the 2016 presidential elections. The charges essentially centre around his role in paying porn star Stormy Daniels for her silence about an affair she claims she had with him. According to the prosecution, Playboy model Karen McDougal and a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed that he knew about a child the former president had out of wedlock, too, received payments. Daniels was paid $1,30,000 by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, while the others were paid $1,50,000 and $30,000, respectively, by the National Enquirer. Bragg said the payments constituted an improper political donation because it benefited Trump so close to the election, breaking New York election laws and federal campaign finance limits.

Trump, who flew in from his Florida mansion for the arrest, pleaded not guilty and was released after the arraignment. He flew back immediately and later told supporters assembled for an “arraignment party” at the gilded ballroom of Mar-a-Lago that his prosecution was an insult to the United States. “They can’t beat us at the ballot box so they try to beat us through the law,” he said. His next hearing is on December 4, about two months before the beginning of the Republican primary season.

The latest scandal involving Trump is likely to have a lasting impact on the American political system. Still, legal experts believe that the hush money scandal is the least of the former president’s concerns. “The charges on which the grand jury indicted Trump are perhaps the least compelling ones against him,” said Shiju M.V., professor of law at Sai University, Chennai. “Trump faces far more serious charges such as trying to subvert the 2020 election results, inciting the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, his handling of presidential records and also multiple counts of business fraud. The Manhattan felony charges are a stretch, and a failed prosecution in New York would allow Trump to play the victim and put other cases in jeopardy.”

There is, however, the possibility of the ongoing case smoothening the way for other prosecutors weighing legal action to proceed against Trump. With the historic taboo of arresting a former president out of the way, they can worry less about the political fallout and focus on the legal merits of their cases. This is especially true about what is happening in Georgia, where Fani Willis, the Fulton county district attorney, is contemplating charging Trump for his alleged interference in the 2020 presidential polls. She recently said her decision was “imminent” and the Manhattan prosecution could convince her about moving forward.

Despite the legal woes, Trump remains the big winner from the Manhattan arraignment, at least in the short to medium term. Ever since he announced his decision to run for a second term in November, his campaign has been struggling to gain traction. Major networks were not keen on having him, old donors preferred to keep some distance and influential Republicans were busy checking out other potential contenders like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The Manhattan indictment has changed all that. “This might seal the deal when it comes to Trump securing the 2024 Republican nomination,” said Thomas J. Whalen, who teaches modern American politics at Boston University. “Trump will portray himself as a political martyr, which will resonate well with the Republican base, whether he is ultimately behind bars or not.”

Trump’s declared and undeclared challengers including DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence are already on the back foot as the arraignment continues to suck the air out of their campaigns. The more the legal drama plays out, the more difficult it will be for them to take their campaigns forward. DeSantis, in fact, tried to make a political play by announcing that as governor, he would not permit Trump’s extradition from Florida, conveying a sense that he was protecting the former president. “In the MAGA world, however, there can just be one alpha dog and so Trump ignored the DeSantis offer and announced his decision to go to Manhattan and get himself arrested,” said Joshy M. Paul, international relations expert at the Delhi-based Centre for Airpower Studies.

Trump is savvy enough to milk the situation as much as possible, relegate his primary challengers to the margins and keep his base fired up. He knows that the US constitution does not bar someone who is indicted or even convicted from contesting presidential elections. Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, for instance, won nearly a million votes in the 1920 elections despite being locked up on sedition charges for opposing World War I.

Apart from Trump, the main beneficiary of the ongoing case is, ironically, President Joe Biden. While it may sound contradictory to argue that the case would help them both at the same time, a deeper analysis of the prevailing political situation shows that the sitting president’s reelection prospects will receive a major boost in case Trump ends up the Republican nominee. To begin with, while the sitting president almost always receives his party’s nomination for a second term, Biden’s advanced age and his sagging popularity have remained a headache for his camp and a temptation for potential challengers, especially if the Republican candidate is someone like DeSantis or Haley. But if Trump secures his party’s nomination, Biden will be completely unchallenged. Moreover, a Republican candidate facing multiple legal challenges will be a boon for him. “In 2020, Biden benefited from voters’ exhaustion with the chaos of the Trump administration. The split screen of Biden focused on doing his job well versus Trump and the Republican Party in chaos will only help him,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith. That scenario will most likely be repeated next year. “Multiple opinion polls show that most Americans approve of his indictment and it is unlikely that moderates and independents, who ultimately determine election results, would vote for a person facing such charges,” said Uma Purushothaman, who teaches American politics at Central University of Kerala.

Finally, the Manhattan indictment also adds to the growing sociopolitical polarisation in the United States. Trump and the Republican Party have been trying to frame his arraignment as an attack on white America as Bragg is Afro-American. He has also been linked to billionaire donor George Soros, bringing in an anti-Semitic angle. Similarly, Judge Juan Merchán, a first-generation immigrant of Colombian origin who is in charge of the case, is being targeted for his Hispanic heritage.

Historically, American presidents have enjoyed protection from indictments and similar judicial troubles even after leaving office. The Manhattan case could increase the possibility of subjecting presidents to frivolous prosecution once they leave office. And the fact that the hush money case is prosecuted by a state attorney and not the federal government sets a new precedent, giving a chance for prosecutors from across the United States to go after a president from a rival party. Biden could be a target as conservative prosecutors like Texas attorney general Ken Paxton explore the possibility of launching a retaliatory legal strike. “Bragg’s move opens up a way for local prosecutors to indict a president once he demits office, but without the guardrails put in place by the federal government,” said Paul. “By opening up the possibility of subjecting the White House to the whims of thousands of politically motivated prosecutors, the ongoing case challenges the will of the Founding Fathers and the spirit of the constitution.”