The first former president of the United States to be indicted has now been charged a third time. This historic event capped a week that tells us a few things about the 2024 presidential race, in which the former president remains the overwhelming GOP favorite.
Here’s what we’ve learned from the last five days.
Republican Party leaders have spent much of the last two years hoping to just move on from Jan. 6 — and urging Trump (in vain) to stop talking about the 2020 election.
This week made clear that nobody can escape it.
Trump faces a criminal trial over his role in efforts to overturn the election that culminated in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. And former vice president Mike Pence, who was invoked more than 100 times in the indictment, has been forced to lean into making the Jan. 6-centric case he had long declined to emphasize.
(Imagine you were told a month ago that Pence would be selling merchandise based on Trump’s indictment — new gear features the slogan “too honest,” which is what Trump allegedly called Pence as Pence declined his entreaties to help overturn the election.)
The party as a whole and all its 2024 contenders will feel a newfound onus to weigh in, too.
The GOP has done its best to avoid a detailed accounting of Trump’s actions and his false claims of mass voter fraud. It acquitted him at his post-Jan. 6 impeachment trial based on a technicality. (Key senators said you can’t impeach someone who has left office.) Then it pulled out of a deal for a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission.
But this indictment has landed when Trump is again the focal point of American politics. There is no waving it off because he’s out of office. And 2024 opponents who have carefully massaged and triangulated their messages about Trump’s legal peril will risk being left out of the major topic of conversation if they don’t engage.
Oh, and Trump has signaled he is going to make all of this very uncomfortable for the GOP by using it to re-litigate the 2020 election and his false claims that it was “stolen” from him.
Trump’s legal team has made clear it would prefer his federal criminal cases don’t go to trial before the 2024 election. While that remains possible with the classified-documents case in Florida — set for trial in May but subject to delay, in part thanks to the new superseding indictment and the care required in handling sensitive material — the Jan. 6 case in Washington, D.C., may be a speedier affair.
Special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment appears built for speed. For a start, he charged Trump solo. If he charges Trump’s alleged co-conspirators, it will apparently be separately. And he kept the indictment narrowly focused on four charges, one count each. Then Smith announced at a news conference that “my office will seek a speedy trial.”
He might get his wish. A magistrate judge said Thursday that a trial date will be set at the first hearing, on Aug. 28, which isn’t always how it’s done. Trump lawyer John Lauro has said it’s “absurd” to try to conduct the trial in accordance with the Speedy Trial Act, which would mean starting the trial within 100 days.
Also remember that, unlike the classified-documents case, this one doesn’t feature a Trump-appointed judge who has in the past ruled in his favor in controversial ways. And it does feature a fact pattern that has been chewed over extensively for more than two years.
July was not a good month for the Florida governor. The presidential race was actually mostly static for his first month as a candidate, but since then he has gone from trailing Trump by nearly 30 points in the Republican primary to trailing by nearly 40 points. He’s now competing just to be in second place in states like Iowa and South Carolina, after polling close to Trump as recently as February, before he was officially running.
Hence the campaign shake-up.
What’s got to be particularly frustrating for DeSantis is that he’s even losing badly to Trump among voters who might logically be in his corner, like those who emphasize fighting “woke” corporations, a DeSantis signature issue. And his supposed retooling of his message hasn’t exactly borne fruit.
So what’s left for him to do to arrest the backsliding? Well, this week DeSantis sent Vice President Harris a letter seeking a meeting to discuss his state’s controversial slavery curriculum (she declined). And he just agreed to a one-on-one debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), which Newsom proposed nearly a year ago.
The combined picture is a campaign more focused on stunts than anything else, because the “anything else” has roundly failed.
Despite all the legal drama surrounding Trump, polls this week suggested that the GOP might be as competitive as ever in the 2024 general election.
A New York Times/Siena College poll showed Trump and Biden tied at 43 percent in a prospective matchup, despite most recent quality polls giving Biden a small edge.
A CNN poll, meanwhile, showed that encouraging signs about the economy and inflation really have yet to give President Biden much of a boost.
Finally, the CNN poll included a somewhat remarkable finding. It asked whether people had more confidence in Biden or congressional Republicans to deal with major issues. While Americans in December picked the GOP by two points, they picked it by nine points in this poll.
All of which might help explain why Barack Obama felt the need to give Biden a reality check about Trump’s potential to defeat him in 2024.
There has been little in the way of a merit-based defense of Trump after this latest indictment, as was the case after the previous two. And relatively few Republicans have actually gone to bat for him in any significant way — at least compared with the way they did when the federal government searched Mar-a-Lago a year ago.
But in this case, the tepid pushback is arguably more pronounced.
The idea is that Trump is being politically targeted. The idea is that there is a two-tiered system of justice. The idea is that Trump was entitled to free speech and may even have believed his falsehoods.
Virtually none of the Republican defense argues that Trump was actually right and that his actions were warranted. This lack might be considered rather patronizing, because it implies that he wasn’t, and they weren’t. Why not just argue that what he said and did was substantiated?
Because they can’t. It’s in some ways an extension of what happened after the 2020 election. Republicans by and large didn’t echo Trump’s obviously false claims of mass voter fraud, because they seemingly knew they were ridiculous. They instead made process arguments about voting rules that changed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, supplementing Trump’s objections with these to at least seem like they were on the same page.
Some seemed to think that was the smart play and it would all just blow over. Then Jan. 6 happened.
Nearly three years later, Republicans get to keep dealing with it, right into the middle of the 2024 election.