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Trump wagers that if he is indicted, he will be the Republican nominee in 2024

Photo by Loegunn Lai on Unsplash

Donald Trump appeared angry and shaken during his arraignment in Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday, but he had brushed off the moment by the weekend, contending that the indictment and other legal troubles would carry him to the 2024 Republican nomination, people close to him said.

With his status as a criminal defendant subjecting him to the strictures of the judicial process, the former president is playing an increasingly high-stakes game to inextricably tie his legal strategy to his political gameplan as he seeks to recapture the Oval Office next year.

Trump’s wager is that using his legal troubles as a campaign issue will harden support from his base and Republican elected officials, and that support could undercut or falsely delegitimize prosecutions in Georgia or by the US justice department in other criminal investigations.

The approach may or may not work, and Trump’s advisers acknowledge that campaigning on his personal legal issues that appeal to Republican primary voters could backfire in a general election where independent voters might recoil at re-electing a former president who is charged with 34 felonies.

But the benefits to Trump of using for campaign purposes his indictment over hush money allegedly paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016 has been readily apparent, providing him with a boost across all areas: in polling, in fundraising and in wall-to-wall media coverage.

The person most hurt by the indictment, his advisers contend, was his expected rival for the Republican nomination: the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, who was forced to come to Trump’s defense and still fell behind him in multiple polls, which suggested a trend rather than an outlier result.

In a recent Yahoo news poll, Trump was beating DeSantis 57% to 31% in a hypothetical one-to-one contest and was attracting majority support, at 52%, when pitted against a wider, 10-candidate field including DeSantis as well as the UN ambassador in the Trump administration, Nikki Haley.

Trump improved his lead over DeSantis in internal polling by McLaughlin and Associates, which surveyed 1,000 likely 2024 general election voters and found Trump would beat DeSantis 63% to 30%, improving his lead from January when he was at 52% and DeSantis at 40%.

Trump’s allies also noted the indictment snapped Republican members of Congress into line, with the House judiciary committee chair, Jim Jordan, sending a flurry of subpoenas to the Manhattan district attorney’s office to get confidential information about the case against him.

And Trump received a boost in fundraising, with his campaign claiming it raised more than $12m in donations in the week after the indictment. Roughly a third was from first-time donors, though the actual figure won’t be available for confirmation for several weeks.

Whether the political pressure – as well as the personal attacks on prosecutors that Trump has vowed to launch – works to dissuade prosecutors is less clear. In Georgia, prosecutors expect to charge Trump and dozens of others over efforts to overturn the 2020 election in that state, a person familiar with the matter said.

But if Trump cannot actually stave off prosecutions, then the next best outcome for him is to at least raise suspicions among voters across the country that the cases are politically motivated, his advisers have suggested in conversations with his legal team.

Even beyond the major news events like Trump’s indictment or his arraignment in the New York hush money case, advisers and associates have discussed for weeks about how tying the legal strategy to the political strategy remains a winning formula, if only in the short term.

At least one Trump associate noted that the former president was a “guilty pleasure” for everyone in the political ecosystem, describing how Trump-related developments give Democrats an issue to rail against and Republicans an issue to rally behind, and boost ratings for cable news outlets.

The wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s arraignment – including helicopter shots following Trump boarding his plane from his Florida Mar-a-Lago resort to New York and speedboats dogging his motorcade as it drove down FDR Drive in Manhattan – increased ratings for every major TV network.

On the evening after the arraignment, Fox News topped 6.4 million viewers on Tucker Carlson’s show. MSNBC hit 2.8 million viewers and CNN peaked at 2.2 million viewers for their special coverage, exceeding their top-rated shows in the first quarter of 2023, which had respectively hauled in 3.3 million, 1.4 million and 0.6 million viewers.

The Trump team has been watching cable news viewership closely. Last month, when Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he mocked an aide for talking to CNN because of its recent ratings dip and later laughed at how TV networks would hire a speedboat “only for Trump”.

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