Carl P. Leubsdorf: This is just the beginning for Donald Trump
From the commentary: Still, it remains hard to see how the events of the past week — and those likely to unfold over the coming months — will strengthen Trump’s 2024 general election chances, even if they increase the likelihood that his solid GOP support will net him a third straight Republican nomination.
Here’s an important thing to remember: This is probably just the beginning. The end is unforeseeable.
That’s because the unprecedented indictment of Donald Trump by a New York County grand jury on charges of paying “hush money” to a former porn star is almost certainly the first of several criminal charges he will face.
The former president faces potentially far more serious allegations, most stemming from his extra-legal efforts to reverse his 2020 election defeat. They include pressuring Georgia officials to change the state’s outcome, resisting efforts to retrieve illegally possessed classified documents and inciting the insurrection to prevent Congress from ratifying electoral votes.
These cases – and any indictments and trials that may flow from them — are likely to dominate the political news for months, freezing the current situation in which Trump is the solid GOP front-runner and the November 2024 outlook remains very much in doubt.
That also means that the arguments — and the forecasts — that partisans and independent analysts have been making in recent days are unlikely to change much as Americans confront the spectacle of a former president brought before the bar of justice.
On one side, Trump’s Republican Party has lined up virtually unanimously against New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of the former president — though not necessarily supporting Trump’s ever-changing explanation of the events in question.
“The American people will not tolerate this injustice, and the House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account,” tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. “This is an outrage,” said former Vice President Mike Pence, who just recently said history will hold Trump “accountable” for the Capitol insurrection.
The GOP enthusiasm for Trump prompted some Republicans to make premature predictions. "Alvin Bragg just single-handedly secured Donald Trump the 2024 presidential election," Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls told Axios.
Meanwhile, Democrats played it generally low-key, declaring that the former president’s indictment shows that everyone faces equal treatment under the law.
“A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the floor manager for one of the two failed impeachments of Trump. “Especially when they do. To do otherwise is not democracy."
In the short term, analysts agree, Trump’s indictment complicates the task of his opponents for the Republican nomination. Recent polls show Trump increasing his lead nationally over his closest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but in a less commanding position in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
But it will likely be much harder now for Trump’s challengers to make a strong case against his nomination while at the same time supporting his challenge of the New York indictment.
In addition, it will be hard for any of them to get much media attention if daily news accounts – especially those on 24-hour cable TV – are dominated by Trump and the legal issues swirling around him.
Even without this, the first important test for the entire GOP field won’t take place for many months, a multi-candidate debate scheduled for August in the city that will host the party’s 2024 convention, Milwaukee.
Here’s something else to consider: The history of many past contested races suggests they often don’t come into clear focus until the final weeks before voters cast their first caucus and primary votes, either in late January or early February next year.
Meanwhile, the latest proceedings against Trump are giving new impetus to those House Republicans who want to use their newly gained majority to investigate everything possible about the Democrats, starting with President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Even before the New York grand jury indicted Trump, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, and two other GOP chairs demanded that Bragg testify before Congress and produce documents about the probe. Bragg refused.
Meanwhile, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene went to New York to demonstrate against the former president’s indictment.
These events underscore the degree that Trump — and the House Republican support for him — is dominating the work of the House GOP majority, far overshadowing its efforts to implement some of its pre-election legislative agenda.
Meanwhile, President Biden can revel in the fact that, while Republicans soft-pedal some normal political jockeying to join one another in opposing the case against Trump, Biden is being seen daily as carrying out the people’s business.
Last Friday, for example, while Republicans fulminated against Bragg and the national news was dominated by the plans for Trump’s Tuesday arraignment, Biden was in Mississippi, consoling victims of recent devasting tornadoes and promising federal help to rebuild.
On Monday, the president was in Minneapolis for the latest in a series of trips to highlight his administration’s measures dealing with climate change, infrastructure upgrading and inflation.
The president’s own job approval remains in the lower 40s, none too strong for his anticipated re-election bid, and his matchup numbers with Trump and DeSantis continue to suggest a close 2024 race.
That may not change for months. Still, it remains hard to see how the events of the past week — and those likely to unfold over the coming months — will strengthen Trump’s 2024 general election chances, even if they increase the likelihood that his solid GOP support will net him a third straight Republican nomination.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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