Republicans are rushing to defend former President Trump after his indictment on Thursday in an alleged hush money scheme, signaling that the criminal charges could bolster his standing in the 2024 presidential race and ease his path to the GOP nomination.
The indictment doesn’t bar Trump from running for the White House. Yet it marked an extraordinary turn for the former president, who is seeking to reclaim the Oval Office after a 2020 loss that roiled the GOP and sparked a party-wide reckoning over Trump’s political instincts and broader appeal among the country’s voters.
While there’s still an uncertain road ahead for Trump, many Republicans said that the indictment would only strengthen his standing among an influential conservative base and complicate his GOP rivals’ efforts to cut into his support in an expectedly contentious 2024 primary.
“It may turn traditional Republicans away from Trump but it solidifies his position with MAGA [Make America Great Again] voters and will make it harder for other candidates to win them over,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, adding that “Trump will make great use of this. It will give him a big fundraising boost and lots of free media.”
“The indictment has put Trump back at the top of the polls, supercharged his online fundraising and scattered landmines in front of every Republican challenging him for the nomination.”
Trump has given every indication that he will continue on with his presidential campaign in spite of the indictment, using the charges against him as a cudgel to argue that Democrats are desperate to take him out of the 2024 race because they fear a rematch against him.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, slammed Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), whose office is behind the indictment, saying that he made a mistake in charging Trump.
“Bragg’s a joke. This was a stupid thing for him to do,” Feehery said, adding that Trump’s opponents in the presidential campaign won’t use this against him. “If this had more validity, they would use this against Trump, but it’s so stupid. Bragg doesn’t come across as a prosecutor. He comes off as a political hack. Bragg is going to be the easy guy to attack.”
Yet some Republicans said that the indictment carries considerable risks for Trump. He is the first current or former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges, and many in the GOP have already grown weary from the various controversies and dramas that have swirled around Trump and his political career.
Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican strategist who worked as a senior adviser for Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) during his presidential bid in 2012, said for any other candidate the indictment “would be a huge obstacle that would prevent them from advancing politically.”
“But he’s going to use this to his advantage. His team has already signaled they’re going to paint this as politically motivated,” Madden said.
At the same time, Madden added, “Trump fatigue has set in and the nonstop focus on this … that’s going to weigh heavily on some voters and over time the burden could get greater and greater on this.”
“The biggest question is ‘What are his declared opponents going to do?’” he continued. “This would be a gift to any other field of candidates … it should open it up and scramble the race but that’s only if the other candidates try and take advantage of it.”
For Republicans hoping to challenge Trump for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nod, the indictment also carries serious political risks. One Republican strategist who’s been in touch with multiple 2024 hopefuls said that the next several weeks could prove difficult for both declared and potential candidates.
“Republicans are going to rally around Trump and so the question is: How do you find a way to go after him without pissing off a lot of the people that you’re trying to win over?” the strategist said. “I don’t know that I have a good answer right now.”
For now, Trump’s rivals are standing behind him. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who jumped into the race last month, condemned the charges as a “dangerously politicized prosecution,” while former Vice President Pence, a prospective 2024 candidate, called the indictment an “outrage.”
Another 2024 contender, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, slammed the charges against Trump on Thursday, tweeting that the indictment is “more about revenge than it is justice.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who hasn’t yet announced a campaign but is widely expected to in the coming months, said that he would not “assist in any extradition request,” and tweeting on Thursday that the indictment was “un-American.” Trump is a Florida resident, and while state law allows the governor to intervene in extradition matters if they are contested, he would not be able to stop it altogether.
Early polling shows DeSantis has the most serious threat to Trump’s 2024 ambitions, making him the target of near-constant attacks from the former president and his allies. One DeSantis ally said that he could use the indictment to distinguish himself from Trump in the coming months and telegraph that he wouldn’t bring the same kind of drama to the White House.
Republican strategist Susan Del Percio, who doesn’t support Trump, said, “politically for now [the indictment] will be a wash with Republican primary voters. Trump doesn’t gain any votes, but he doesn’t lose any core support.”
Yet she argued that the charges are “very bad news for Ron DeSantis. For at least a week, it will be all Donald Trump all the time, so DeSantis should put his book tour on hold.”
“On the other hand, if he has any negative news that may come out, he should get it out next week because all eyes will be on Trump,” she added.
How the indictment plays out among the broader electorate remains an open question. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday found that while 55 percent of voters surveyed believe that Bragg’s office is probing for “serious” claims, 60 percent also believe the case is politically motivated.
Feehery, the Republican strategist, said Democrats are trying to use the charges against Trump to peel away independent voters. Ultimately, he predicted, that effort would come back to haunt them.
“The long game is they’re trying to influence independent voters,” he said. “They’re hoping that there’s enough of a stain that it has an impact on independent voters, but when the FBI raided Mar a Lago, it backfired.”
“The ultimate problem here is that people will start losing faith in the justice system,” Feehery added. “They’re basically criminalizing politics, and that’s how Trump supporters will see it.”
Yet others are less certain about what Trump’s indictment will mean for the 2024 presidential race. The first primaries are still nearly a year away, and there’s likely a long legal road ahead for Trump, who also faces multiple other possible indictments in separate cases, including a federal investigation into his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and a grand jury inquiry into his alleged intervention in the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump is expected to be arraigned next week in the New York hush money case.
“The most honest answer I can give: I don’t know. I don’t know what it means for the country, the GOP, 2024, etc.,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “I don’t know how voters react or how Trump will behave as this process plays out. And I suspect no one else does either.”