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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
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Larry Donnelly This indictment won’t solve the Trump conundrum

Our columnist looks at the possible outcomes as the former US president is indicted over hush money payments to Stormy Daniels.

WELL, AS THE man himself promised, Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury. He will be arrested early next week. It is a cause for celebration on social media, with those who despise the 45th President of the United States gleefully anticipating his perp walk.

They need to take a collective deep breath. While this is a seminal moment – the first time an ex-president has been charged with a criminal offence – it is a long, long way from the end of Trump. Let’s first rewind to his rambling speech to an approving crowd of ardent backers last weekend in Waco, Texas.

“We won in 2016. We won by much more in 2020, but it was rigged… Prosecutorial misconduct is their new tool, and they’re willing to use it at levels never seen before in our country.”

Donald Trump again delighted in playing the victim. The indictment successfully obtained by Democratic District Attorney Alvin Bragg will only embolden him further. In his world, he should be in the White House and the justice system in the US has been perverted entirely by his political foes who won’t rest until he is locked up.

In denial

Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that Joe Biden beat him is farcical, of course. Yet it is delicious red meat to the thousands who waited hours to see their hero in Waco. And notwithstanding the fact that having elected prosecutors is a systemic flaw, his claims of endemic corruption are, to put it mildly, overwrought.

It was reported that Trump seemed “rusty” and may have “lost some of the speed off his fastball” because attendees at the rally didn’t appear as fired up as they invariably were in his two prior presidential campaigns.

One attendee confessed in an interview afterwards that he was exhausted by the repeated rehashing of the 2020 election, even as he pledged fidelity to the bombastic billionaire.

The potential emergence of an enthusiasm deficit within his dedicated following would be a most unwelcome development at the same time as ominous legal clouds swirl over Trump. In addition to his pending arrest in New York, he faces more trouble there, in Georgia, in Florida, in Washington, DC and federally for past alleged misfeasance and malfeasance.

Stormy weather

The investigation that is dominating the headlines today relates to the payment made during his first bid for the Oval Office by his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, to porn star Stormy Daniels in connection with a tryst that they are said to have had more than 15 years ago.

This criminal case is far from a slam dunk for DA Bragg. It involves a complicated interplay between state and federal law and there is a statute of limitations issue.

Each, as well as a colourable argument that DA Bragg has a political motivation, gives Trump’s lawyers ample wiggle room to employ their boss’s favourite tactic in litigation: delay and obfuscate.

This will be harder than in a civil context, but a prosecution will be an uphill battle for DA Bragg, one that his similarly left-of-centre predecessor was less keen to wage.

Toxic brand?

The real question is what impact will Trump being arrested have on his chances of making a return to Pennsylvania Avenue? Some commentators have posited that the GOP grassroots will unite behind their beleaguered champion and see it as a political witch-hunt. There is merit to this analysis.

It is notable, for instance, that his chief rivals to take the fight to President Biden – Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo – have unanimously voiced support for him and thinly veiled contempt for DA Bragg.

Conversely, others suspect that the cumulative effect of all of these legal travails may be that it leads more politically astute and influential conservatives to conclude that there is just too much murk here and to then use their money and their platforms to persuade the faithful that a new messenger, DeSantis, is needed. They can do so without being critical of Donald Trump. Instead, they would be wise to focus their ire on the left and elements of the elite establishment, the press in particular, for pulling out all the stops to destroy Trump.

The months ahead will tell us which line of conjecture is closer to the truth. In the short term, however, Trump’s polling numbers are resilient. In national polls of reliable primary voters, he continues to lead DeSantis by anywhere between 8 and 30 percentage points.

Given the incessant barrage of negative attention and coverage he has received of late, this strong showing is pretty remarkable.

Herein lies a conundrum for Republicans and Democrats alike. Despite his indictment and looming arrest, it persists.

No matter what their public pronouncements, powerful figures on the right fret privately about the prospects of Donald Trump being their standard-bearer in 2024. They don’t believe he can prevail. Indeed, they regard him as the one candidate who Joe Biden definitely can defeat.

I tend to agree; the small cadre of floating voters who typically determine the outcome of tight presidential contests in the US lacks the appetite for a reincarnation of the circus that was Trump’s first term. Further, conservative strategists fear that he would drag GOP office holders and aspirants whose names will also appear on the ballot down with him.

But – and it is a big but – they can ill afford to offend the roughly one-third of the party membership who adore Trump and are happy to walk with him off the electoral cliff. In this vein, there is the possibility, albeit a rather remote one in my view, that Trump could mount a third party insurgency in the event that he isn’t nominated and feels aggrieved. That would guarantee President Biden’s re-election.

On the other side of the aisle, there are plenty of Democratic politicians and consultants who share the assessment of their Republican counterparts that Trump is a dead letter and cannot win a general election. Accordingly, they would be content, at one level, to have the widely loathed and easily vilified Trump as their opponent in 2024.

But – and it, too, is a big but – there is simultaneously a wariness that, were Trump the nominee, lightning could strike twice and, against the odds, he could manage to achieve what is for progressives unfathomable. This is magnified by an oft-unspoken, though undeniable, sense of worry internally at the exploitable vulnerabilities of their man Biden, who is in his early 80s and has been gaffe prone.

In sum, while Donald Trump is clearly diminished and under extraordinary legal and political pressure, he is not forgotten and not gone – no matter how fervently countless millions globally hope and pray that he would just go away.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with


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