The GOP made a devil’s bargain with Trump; the bill is coming due

Former President Trump steps out of a vehicle.
Former President Trump arrives to board his plane for a trip to a campaign rally in Waco, Texas, last week.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Nearly seven years ago, the GOP made what many party officials privately called a devil’s bargain with Donald Trump. The bill just came due.

It’s not possible yet to assess the strength of Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump. The investigation was known to involve hush money payments to a porn star to cover up an alleged affair, but its full dimensions and the precise charges on which a New York grand jury indicted the former president Thursday afternoon remain under seal and may not be known until his arraignment, scheduled for Tuesday.

Nor is there much point in trying to guess the impact on a general election that remains more than 19 months — and perhaps several indictments — in the future.

But what is clear is that Republicans now face what may be a worst-case scenario: For at least some time, the front-runner for their nomination will be campaigning while facing criminal charges. That’s likely to strengthen him in the eyes of a significant share of the party’s voters even as a majority of Americans view it as disqualifying.


If Trump wins the nomination, the party’s fate could be lashed to the outcome of a criminal trial. If he loses, the indictment will give him every incentive to once again cry foul and denounce whoever beat him.

Trump already has given the country a preview of what campaigning while under indictment will look like: For the past several weeks, he has been regularly denouncing Bragg, calling on his supporters to protest the possibility of charges and demanding that the rest of the party — including his potential rivals — rally around him.

As he’s done that, his standing among Republican voters appears to have risen; about half of potential Republican primary voters said before the indictment that they would support him, according to the tracking survey conducted by Morning Consult, a polling and research firm.

Making it all about him

In mid-January, when Trump’s standing was lower than it is today, Republican pollster Whit Ayres surveyed Republican voters and found that about 1 in 4 identified more as supporters of Trump than as supporters of the GOP.

Trump’s base of support includes that group and another slice of Republicans who identify as supporters of the party but are fully committed to the former president.

Together, they add up to about one-third of the party, Ayres estimated.

Those voters are “ride or die with Trump,” Republican strategist Sarah Longwell told me in a recent interview.

The larger share — the “maybe Trumpers,” as Ayres calls them, make up 55%-60% of the party. “They’re exactly the kind of people who will want to know if this is a credible case or a trumped up vendetta by a liberal New York, Democratic prosecutor who is out to get Trump,” Ayres said.

The good news for Trump’s rivals is that those voters, plus the roughly 10% of Republicans who are firmly opposed to Trump, are enough to swing the nomination — if they consolidate behind an alternative candidate. The bad news for them is that the indictment will make communicating any message to voters harder.


In the immediate aftermath of the indictment, the short-term impact on the campaign was clear: It quickly became the only topic in Republican politics as rival candidates and other GOP figures fell into line behind Trump.

Former Vice President Mike Pence called the prosecution an “outrage,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged that his state would not participate in extraditing Trump to New York — a meaningless statement as the governor, a lawyer, surely knows. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson denounced Trump’s indictment, calling it “an effort to take him out of the political race.”

“That’s always the problem in a campaign with Trump,” said Ayres, who has often criticized the former president. “No one is better at keeping attention focused on himself.”

One of Trump’s great skills as a politician is that ability to seize the spotlight. He used it throughout the 2016 primaries, saying things that many traditional Republican officials, journalists and other analysts saw as self-destructive gaffes but which kept eyes turned his way.

The result was to blunt the ability of rival candidates to convey a consistent message to voters: At any moment, they knew, their carefully crafted plans could be blown up by a Trump tweet.

Trump’s current rivals face much the same problem, and the indictment compounds it. Rather than talking about their preferred issues, the candidates will face weeks, perhaps months, in which Trump and his allies will be demanding that they talk about him and what they’re doing to fight his prosecutorial enemies.


That’s just the start of the complications the party will face.

Trump’s supporters hope the charges against him will be thrown out swiftly — perhaps on the ground that the alleged crimes happened too long ago to still be prosecuted. That could happen; there are legal arguments that the statute of limitations already has run out on any offenses Trump may have committed in connection with the payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.

If the case were dismissed, Trump would surely claim it as an exoneration, which likely would boost him in the eyes of Republican voters and perhaps some others.

But it’s at least equally likely that the legal proceedings against Trump could last well into the primary season and beyond.

Consider that the same district attorney’s office indicted Trump’s company on tax fraud charges in July 2021, along with the company’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. The case, minus Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty, went to trial more than a year later, in November 2022, and lasted about a month, ending with the Trump Organization being convicted on 17 counts of fraud and other crimes for which the company was fined $1.6 million in January.

If the current case followed a similar timeline, it would go to trial in the summer of 2024, about when Republicans are currently scheduled to hold their nominating convention in Milwaukee in mid-July.

Long before a trial, every step of the campaign process — the timing of debates, for example — will be complicated by court schedules for as long as the case lasts.

And of course, this may be just the beginning. Trump faces at least three other active criminal investigations: a state grand jury in Georgia that is hearing evidence on his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in that state and two federal investigations being handled by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, one into Trump’s involvement with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the other into his handling of government documents, many of them classified, that he kept at his Mar-a-Lago estate.


The Georgia case appears to be close to a final decision on an indictment, while the federal cases seem unlikely to finish for several more months.

No one should expect a big swing in public opinion on Trump — Americans have had decades to form their opinions of him, and most of those are firmly held. But to win a general election, Trump needs to do better than he did in 2020. An indictment — let alone several of them — is extremely unlikely to help. A survey released Wednesday by the well-regarded Quinnipiac University poll found that a majority of Americans, 57% - 38%, said criminal charges should disqualify Trump from running, That almost surely does not mean such a large share of the public would vote against him if he were the Republican nominee, but it’s an indicator of what should be obvious — a criminal indictment is not a plus.

And if Trump loses the nomination in a primary campaign overshadowed by what his supporters already see as an illegitimate political prosecution, he would be even less likely to accept defeat and fully back the Republican nominee. Trump sitting in Mar-a-Lago fuming about a stolen nomination would be almost a sure recipe for a GOP defeat.

Ever since Trump captured the Republican nomination in 2016, party leaders have reaped the benefit of an alliance with him that brought them tens of millions of additional voters. All the while, they tried as much as possible to stay mum about his misconduct — known and suspected — and hoped that good fortune would forever forestall a reckoning.

That was always a losing bet. Thursday’s indictment suggests it could be a costly one as well.

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