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Larry Donnelly Can 'Teflon Don' weather this storm and who's best placed to challenge him?

Our columnist looks at the latest legal moves against Trump and assesses his main challengers for the nomination.

SPECIAL COUNSEL JACK Smith will soon be a global household name. His investigation into the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, has led to an indictment.

Specifically, Trump’s absconding to Mar-a-Lago with classified documents has apparently precipitated seven charges: a violation of the Espionage Act, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, making false statements, etc.

Trump replied in characteristic fashion. “I am an innocent man! The Biden administration is totally corrupt. This is election interference and a continuation of the greatest wish hunt of all time.”

Is Trump in real trouble?

Leaving aside the bluster, this poses potentially grave danger to the current GOP favourite, legally and politically. A substantial prison sentence could flow from a conviction.

Trump has emerged unscathed to date from his myriad brushes with the law and legal system. This latest development will test the “Teflon Don.”

Each Republican candidate is today envisaging a scenario in which Trump is so ensnared in court proceedings that it becomes untenable to go on and he or she is the last person standing.

The cast of serious 2024 contenders is not as big as in 2016 when 17 aspirants participated in the battle to be the Republican presidential nominee, but it is growing daily. This week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, ex-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Governor from 2015-2023, and wealthy entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy were joined by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and Trump’s own Vice President, Mike Pence.

That makes nine, including Trump. Others have declared and more may get in. It is tough to see a genuine prospect for them. Indeed, it is difficult to chart a route to victory for the majority of those mentioned above who cannot be dismissed out of hand because of the office(s) they hold now or once held, or due to their personal fortunes.

The bottom line at the minute is that, according to the aggregated national polling data, Trump is the choice of 53% of Republicans. DeSantis is at 22%. The stragglers are mired in the low single digits. Of course, there is a distance to go until residents of Iowa and New Hampshire express their preferences next winter. And what will transpire in a Miami courtroom on Tuesday might transform the equation, utterly.

Nonetheless, given what the opinion surveys reveal and that Trump’s base is large and incredibly loyal, two questions arise. Do any of the challengers to his throne, bar DeSantis, have a path to acquiring the necessary 1,234 delegates in caucuses and primaries around the country to be anointed the standard-bearer? Most pundits have been responding glibly, yet honestly: their chances lie in the sphere separating slim and none. Then, there is a follow-on: what are they doing?

Why challenge Trump?

Running for president is often lucrative. It engenders opportunities that otherwise would not present themselves for those who pursue it. In the process, they meet countless people across the vast US and increase their name recognition.

Additionally, these individuals are not lacking in self-belief; a presidential bid can be a gratifying ego trip, even if it ends in disappointment or humiliation.

Moreover, as has always been the case, a few of those in the race are actually availing of the visibility that inheres in seeking the highest office to get on the radar screen of the foe they deem the likely winner when he must pick a running mate. Scott and Haley, among others, might fit that bill on this occasion.

Beyond idle, albeit intriguing, speculation, let’s consider this week’s two significant entrants, Christie and Pence. It is virtually impossible to imagine how Christie could garner momentum. He has not been in power for a long time; he is from New Jersey, which is despised Democrat territory in the eyes of many on the influential hard right; he and Trump have a palpable mutual hatred after a spectacular falling out between the two men.

Screenshot 2023-06-09 at 12.38.28 Chris Christie and Mike Pence have both thrown their hats into the GOP ring. Shutterstock Shutterstock

The Italian American’s supporters claim that he has a unique capacity to wound Trump in a debate and that, if he lands a blow successfully, it has the potential to reshape things entirely. He will, no doubt, fire shots if he manages to get on the same stage as his ex-ally, yet the idea that he will knock Trump down remains wishful thinking.

Similarly, Pence’s is a straight uphill quest. His launch video hit plenty of good notes. Interestingly, he stressed his Irish roots in a clear appeal to the heavily Irish American electorate in southern New Hampshire, where the bulk of the early voting state’s population is. His overall messaging, as well as his sunny disposition, is congruent with the ideology of those who prefer Ronald Reagan immeasurably to the man he served in the White House for four years.

Regrettably for Pence, they are a greatly diminished minority. And Trump loathes him. In a fairer world, that the vice-president finally stood up to his boss and refused to tamper with the operation of US democracy on January 6th would benefit him. In contemporary GOP-land, it is a black mark.

In this vein, prominent commentators, especially on the left, have asserted that the sole way to beat Trump is to bring the fight to him, to attack him relentlessly and put him on the defensive. It may feel good or be just to advocate this strategy. It could prove politically foolish, however, despite a federal indictment.

Those who argue this is a shrewd modus operandi wilfully ignore not only the truth that approximately 35% of putative primary voters adore Trump and will be with him no matter what, but also the truth that he is hugely popular with the party’s backers. A May CNN poll found that nearly 80% have a favourable opinion of Trump. Merely 18% see him in a negative light. The anti-Trump rump is tiny.

Will the result of Jack Smith’s thorough exploration shift these numbers is what everyone is wondering?

For now, at any rate, most criticisms of Trump are being made subtly and indirectly. DeSantis, for instance, assailed the “weaponisation of federal law enforcement” without defending Trump last night.

Make no mistake: Republicans who appropriately fear that Trump cannot win a general election face a predicament in the impending campaign for the nomination. Alienating his people is not an option.

If Trump isn’t undone by the special counsel in the meantime and stays in pole position as key tests of strength in Iowa and New Hampshire approach, expect these concerned conservatives to begin speaking of a duty. A duty of candidates trailing badly to drop out and turn the contest into a mano a mano pitting Trump against his best-placed opponent.

The plunges taken recently by Christie, Pence, et al have not altered the odds that DeSantis probably will be the one they ultimately have to unite behind. Without denying how unprecedented and disturbing what Trump himself announced yesterday is, the smart money is still on a rematch of a moral reprobate and an elderly gentleman who is decades past his prime in November 2024. God bless America.

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


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