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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Don’t Expect Trump’s Legal Drama to Go Away Before Voters Vote in 2024

Amidst all the speculation involving Trump’s Manhattan indictment and his presidential campaign, I decided to issue a warning for those who think the two things can be separated, and wrote it up at New York:

Many have observed that Donald Trump’s felony indictment in Manhattan this week is already boosting his standing among GOP primary voters, at least temporarily, while prospectively depressing his standing among swing voters in the general election. Trump’s Republican rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination desperately need to make his hypothetical “electability” problem an issue in the primaries. But as my colleague Eric Levitz points out, it’s tough to make that argument while Trump is in court, ostensibly fighting the good fight against liberal “persecution” as the vast majority of the Republican Party cheers him on:

“[I]n the eyes of the conservative base, to attack Trump is to aid and abet the president’s persecution at the hands of Soros and his minions. To question his electability, meanwhile, is tantamount to calling on Republicans to let the terrorists win.”

For Trump’s GOP foes, the shift from a political landscape dominated by his legal battles to a normal primary season can’t happen fast enough. Unfortunately, that’s very unlikely to happen anytime soon. He still faces possible criminal indictments in Atlanta (for Team Trump’s alleged election interference) and Washington (for Trump’s alleged responsibility for the January 6 insurrection and mishandling of classified documents). There is also potentially noisy civil litigation pending in New York (E. Jean Carroll is suing Trump for defamation because he accused her of making up her rape allegation against him).

But even if Trump somehow avoids additional indictments and high-stakes encounters with the federal and state justice systems, the Manhattan case that is already proceeding could drag on and on, ensuring that Trump’s legal woes will dominate headlines throughout the 2024 election cycle. Per the Washington Post:

“Trump’s lawyers have until August to file challenges to the case accusing him of hiding a payment to an adult-film actress before the 2016 presidential election to keep her quiet about a sexual relationship she says she had with Trump years earlier. Those filings may coincide with the first Republican debate of the primary season, which is also scheduled for August.”

And don’t hold your breath for the actual trial to get underway:

“On Tuesday, prosecutors floated a trial date in January, right before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Feb. 5. But Trump’s legal team suggested a spring 2024 date would be more “realistic,” which the judge sounded open to.”

These preliminary timetables do not fully take into account Trump’s long history as a legal guerrilla who is willing and able to manipulate court proceedings via constant motions, appeals, collateral lawsuits, and delay tactics. As the New York Times recently reported, if Trump thinks it’s in his interest to slow things down in court, he definitely knows how:

“Attack. Attack. Attack.

“Delay. Delay. Delay.

“Those two tactics have been at the center of Donald J. Trump’s favored strategy in court cases for much of his adult life, and will likely be the former president’s approach to fighting the criminal charges now leveled against him if he sticks to his well-worn legal playbook …

“Mr. Trump’s intensely litigious nature has made his strategy more visible over the years than it might otherwise be. He has long used delay tactics in legal matters that emerged from business disputes, and since becoming a politician he has repeatedly tried to throw sand in the gears of the legal system, using the resulting slow pace of litigation to run out the clock until seismic events shifted the playing field.”

Team Trump’s power to dictate the pace of the proceedings against him will likely be enhanced by prosecutors fearful of being perceived as unfair to the former president. Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis has to be aware of a new Georgia bill (which Governor Brian Kemp will almost certainly sign) allowing a state commission to supervise or even remove local prosecutors accused of malfeasance. And in Washington, Joe Biden’s Justice Department will be sensitive to claims that the president is trying to legally harass, if not imprison, his most likely 2024 opponent.

So Trump-haters fantasizing about the former president being frog-marched to prison in leg-irons before he can reach for the White House again should get over it. Between the lengthy New York legal process and the possibility that Trump could prevail in court, not to mention the endless appeals if he is found guilty, there won’t be some deus ex machina that suddenly shuts down his campaign.

That also means Republican 2024 candidates aren’t going to be able to wait until the indictment circus ends to make a case against Trump’s renomination. His legal status will remain uncertain throughout the presidential race, and warnings that his liberal persecutors may eventually triumph won’t go over well with GOP primary voters. And it’s unlikely that any objective indicators will make the point for Trump’s GOP rivals: Polls taken after the indictment show him not only enjoying a surge in the 2024 nomination contest but improving his position slightly against Biden in trial general-election heats (and doing just as well as Ron DeSantis). Add in the fact that most Republican primary voters are aware of how much Trump underperformed expectations in both 2016 and 2020 and you have an “electability” case against the 45th president that could wind up being feeble and yet all that Trump’s rivals can muster. The bottom line is that time is emphatically not on their side.

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