WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump has for years complained about a never-ending “witch hunt” against him ― but what happens when a long-hunted witch is finally indicted?
America looks ever more likely to find out, with the coup-attempting former president apparently on the cusp of making history twice: as the first ex-commander in chief to face criminal charges as well as the first major presidential candidate running while under indictment.
Prosecutors in New York City and Atlanta appear close to asking for formal grand jury charges against Trump and, in Georgia, a number of his close allies. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is pursuing Trump’s $130,000 hush money payment to an adult film star, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has spent two years investigating Trump’s attempts to fraudulently overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia.
U.S. Department of Justice officials are also investigating Trump’s actions leading up to and on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters assaulted the Capitol as part of his last-ditch attempt to hang onto power. The department is also looking into Trump’s refusal to turn over top secret documents in defiance of a subpoena.
Nevertheless, his supporters gloat while opponents caution that a Trump formally accused of a crime would actually gain in stature ― akin to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s warning to Darth Vader before their duel in the first “Star Wars” film that killing him would only make him more powerful.
“The indictments of President Trump are total bullshit, political indictments,” said John Fredericks, a radio talk show host and chair of Trump’s Virginia campaigns in both 2016 and 2020. “So bring it on, is what I say.”
But while Kenobi truly did become more powerful after Vader struck him down, it is not at all certain that Trump would similarly grow stronger should he be indicted.
Kenobi was able to move effortlessly throughout the galaxy in the original trilogy, offering Luke Skywalker invaluable guidance at key moments. Trump, on the other hand, would be facing court appearances and, eventually, a criminal trial.
“It’s 2024. It’s not 2016,” said a former senior official in the Trump White House on condition of anonymity.
He agreed that Trump’s core supporters would stand with him. “Even if he was sitting in prison, they would write him in as a candidate,” he said, although he laughed at the notion that a formal criminal charge would somehow help Trump. “There are a lot of people who are going to say: We can’t vote for a guy who’s under indictment. This isn’t New Jersey.”
One Republican party chairman in a key state agreed that a criminal indictment is never a desirable feature in a campaign, not even in Trump’s case. “No, an indictment is not helpful,” he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Others, even those who badly want the country and the Republican Party to be rid of Trump forever, worry that multiple candidates seeking the 2024 nomination would allow Trump’s hardcore base to once again hand him the victory.
“I’m of the camp that thinks that indicting him helps politically,” said former New Hampshire state Republican chairman Fergus Cullen, who fears that a formal criminal charge would let Trump lock in his own support and then win back others who might have been ready to move on.
Trump has been telling his voting base for years that mainstream Republicans, prosecutors in multiple states and the federal government, and the media were all out to get him, noted David Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant from Iowa.
“They view Trump as the most persecuted man on the planet, and he feeds into that,” Kochel said. “If he were to be indicted, it will only validate what they already feel about it.”
A major unknown in how a Trump indictment would play out politically is how his 2024 rivals would use it in their own campaigns. In 2016, just about all of the other candidates either ignored Trump entirely or went out of their way to praise him through most of 2015, and only started attacking him after his nomination was all but certain.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican consultant and pollster who has been conducting focus groups of Trump supporters for several years, said an indictment would, at least at first, result in GOP voters and the other candidates rallying around him. It would let Trump “make himself an avatar for the Republican persecution complex,” she said.
“Other candidates will want to defend him because voters want him to be defended. That’s going to create a complicated dynamic for Ron DeSantis and the other candidates,” she said, referring to the Florida governor who is expected to enter the race later this spring. “I think it could put some wind in his sails.”
Trump previously saw increased support from Republicans after the FBI searched his country club home in Palm Beach last year. But how long a bump in support would last is another matter. “There is a big chunk of the party that is worried about Donald Trump’s baggage and is interested in moving on,” Longwell said.
That brings the problem back to a potentially crowded field, according to Cullen and others. Multiple candidates could divide up the non-Trump vote, which could be as large as 70 percent of the Republican electorate, so that no one candidate gets more than Trump’s 30 percent ― which was what happened in 2016, too.
Jennifer Horn, another former state Republican chair in New Hampshire, said piecing together a coalition large enough to beat Trump in the primaries will not be easy. “The bigger the field, and the longer they stay in the race, the harder it is to build that coalition,” she said. “Not just because of the candidates, but activists become very attached to their first choice. Sometimes it’s harder to coalesce them than the candidates.”
And Neil Newhouse, a prominent Republican pollster, said he doubts that GOP primary voters who are tired of Trump will be thinking strategically as they cast their ballots. “We have found in the past that in GOP primaries the message that ‘I can win the general election’ is ineffective and the last dying cry of a moderate in a party dominated by conservatives,” he said.
Much of this ― including an actual indictment ― has yet to play out, and could do so in ways unimaginable today, Kochel said. Having an indicted, twice-impeached president who lost reelection standing on a debate stage lobbing insults at his opponents, for instance, is likely to end much differently than a popular reality game show host doing the same against opponents unwilling to fight back.
“Get your popcorn ready,” he said.