Donald Trump long predicted that his MAGA followers would rush to his defense if an indictment against him materialized. What became clear over the weekend was how quickly the rest of the Republican Party might follow.
After the former president broadcast his prediction that he would be arrested Tuesday and called for his base to protest, former Vice President Mike Pence said the case “reeks” of “political prosecution.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called it “an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said a Manhattan district attorney’s expected effort to bring a criminal charge over Trump’s handling of a hush money payment during his 2016 campaign was only evidence of how “afraid” Democrats are of the former president.
By late Saturday, Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur and longshot presidential contender, was injecting the issue directly into the campaign, calling on the rest of the Republican field to join him in demanding that prosecutors “abandon the political persecution through prosecution” of Trump.
Sensing an opening, Trump’s campaign began to turn the impending indictment into a litmus test for the rest of the field: either defend the ex-president, they warned, or be labeled a leftist sympathizer.
Even Trump’s GOP detractors began to see the writing on the wall.
“He’s become the new Teflon president,” said Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party and a longtime critic of Trump. “He is someone who has built his entire political empire on being the victim all the time, and being the martyr, and this is just another example.”
For the duration of the Trump era, Trump has sought to turn one seemingly disqualifying scandal after another into his benefit. Sometimes he’s succeeded (the Access Hollywood tape was not the dagger everyone expected it to be), sometimes he’s struggled (the aftermath of the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 remains largely unkind). In each case, he’s survived.
The expected, coming indictment will test that once more; though, so far, the timing could hardly be better for him. If he is arrested this week, it will once more frame the early stages of the presidential primary around him, just as Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and several other high-profile Republicans consider launching their own campaigns.
“It seems very evident that the left is trying everything they can to discredit former President Donald Trump,” said Bruce Cherry, chair of Seminole County Republican executive committee in Florida, who said the “best possible ticket this country could have” would be Trump as the presidential nominee alongside DeSantis, as his running mate. “The indictment, I feel, doesn’t mean anything.”
If anything, Republicans say, Trump will benefit from a short-term rush of support, much as he did following the FBI’s seizure of documents from his Mar-a-Lago estate last year. It may not manifest itself in national polls — where independent and Democratic voters will be reminded of the drama and scandals that seem to perpetually follow Trump. But one national GOP strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the political fallout, said the ex-president would likely enjoy an immediate fundraising boost in an otherwise unfriendly political environment.
“Small-dollar donors are down,” this person said. “It’s going to motivate them. It proves there is a witch hunt.”
On right-wing social media channels over the weekend, some Trump supporters were debating the merits of violent versus nonviolent protest, loosely contemplating a trucker strike or a bank run while others warned of a deep state “trap.” Unlike legal challenges Trump faces in Fulton County, Ga., and in a special counsel probe around Jan. 6, the case in New York is coming from a district attorney in Manhattan, viewed by many Republicans as an epicenter of the excesses of the left.
“In this case, I think Republicans will rally around Trump initially,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. “Long-term, it depends on what happens with this case, as well as the other criminal investigations.”
If Trump ends up facing multiple indictments, Ayres said, it’s possible that primary voters who are at least open to other Republican presidential candidates will see him as having too much “baggage.” But, he cautioned, no one fully can understand how it will all play out. After all, it’s never happened before.
“I have never studied the indictment of a former president and leading presidential candidate,” Ayres said, “and I’ve never done any polling on the indictment of a former president and leading presidential candidate.”
One nagging fear of some Trump critics is that the case against him may prove to be weak, and that beating it could further embolden him. Former Rep. Peter Meijer, the Michigan Republican who lost his primary last year after voting to impeach Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 riot, said “bullshit Dem crusades help Trump in his primary, which, if he wins, helps Dems by getting the weakest GOP candidate to the general.”
Trump’s highest profile 2024 GOP critic of late, Pence, declined to twist the knife on Saturday. Campaigning in Iowa at foreign policy forum hosted by the Bastion Institute, he told reporters: “No one is above the law. I’m confident President Trump can take care of himself.”
But privately, Pence’s allies have made the case that Trump is likely to face more indictments related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“He’s trying to walk a pretty narrow fence line,” Mike Murphy, a former Indiana Republican state lawmaker who is close to Pence, said of the former vice president’s comments. “He’s trying to keep Trump at arm’s length. But at the same time he knows the Republican base is going to go nuts if this happens on Tuesday. He has to come off as empathetic to their concerns, without being empathetic to Trump. The more serious potential indictment is in Atlanta. He’s going to be clear on that one that right is right and wrong is wrong.”
It’s possible that Trump is overplaying his hand, with his call to “Protest, take our nation back!” and with a rally on Saturday in Waco, Texas, the first of his 2024 campaign. If protests do not materialize — or if crowd sizes are paltry — “it’ll show that the Trump movement is sputtering,” said one longtime Republican strategist who was granted anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the 2024 campaign.
It’s also possible that Republicans fixated on electability will, after Trump’s loss in 2020 and a disappointing midterm, see Trump’s indictment as untenable in a general election.
“At some point, some of his supporters will see that the pile-on effect of these legal actions directly affects his ability to win a general election,” said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chair and longtime party strategist. “There is a reality that could start sinking in that he’s going to be diverted by these legal actions through the entire campaign, probably.”
The biggest fear for some Republicans, however, is that an indictment may truly hurt Trump and the GOP just when the party needs to win back independents and moderate Republicans who ran away from them in 2020. Images of an indicted former president or of the protests it sparks could be painful reminders of his time in office.
“It helps him in the Republican primary, but he was going to win the Republican primary, anyway,” said Mike Madrid, the Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
The problem for the GOP, he said, is that even if an indictment further intensifies Trump’s base, it will do nothing for the party in the general election.
“The intensity of a shrinking base is not the sign of a growing movement,” Madrid said. “It’s the sign of a dwarf star imploding.”
Natalie Allison contributed to this report.