The political impact of the new felony criminal indictment of Donald Trump could be both massive and complicated. But one thing it will do for sure is keep the 2020 election in view, as I noted at New York:
It’s easy to conflate all of Donald Trump’s legal problems into an undifferentiated blur of litigation serving as a sideshow to his 2024 comeback effort. But it’s important to recognize that the latest indictment from special counsel Jack Smith won’t just serve as a distraction for Trump and other candidates running for president. It will inevitably focus the intraparty and interparty debate already underway on the events of the last presidential election, a dynamic that will only intensify once the expected indictment of Trump under Georgia state law for election interference activities drops in Atlanta any day now.
It is almost impossible to overstate how much this development plays into Trump’s reelection strategy. From the get-go, the 45th president has made his 2024 campaign a vengeance-and-redemption tour based on his contention that Democrats “rigged” the 2020 election and subsequently conspired to waylay his career with an impeachment, the January 6 committee investigation, and multiple civil and criminal proceedings. In various ways, other Republican candidates and opinion leaders have sought to convince their voters to “move on” to a campaign based on negative characterizations of Joe Biden, his “far left” party, his economic and fiscal record, and his age and alleged disabilities.
But now there’s no “moving on” from the events of 2020 in all their wildly improbable trajectory culminating in the January 6 Capitol riot. The pathetic reaction of top Trump rival Ron DeSantis to the latest indictment — basically offering to save Trump’s freedom by wrecking the federal law enforcement system — shows how everyone other than the former president has lost control of the 2024 narrative. The sheer weight of Trump’s upcoming trials on the nomination-contest calendar will force his rivals to adjust the pace and direction of their campaign activities as well, even as they chase the man dominating the political landscape from a great distance.
That’s true, in a different sort of way, for Biden and other Democrats. The new indictment (which, again, will be echoed by the impending Georgia indictment) doesn’t involve some arcane matter like presidential records or some prepresidential or non-presidential Trump misconduct. It focuses on events virtually all Americans read and watched and heard about in great detail as they unfolded. Given the lens of partisan polarization through which the prosecution will be viewed, Team Biden will need to make a persuasive case to a narrow band of swing voters that Trump is the villain of the story and a criminal who must be kept from regaining power lest his crimes bear fruit. And if Trump is indeed the GOP nominee and the general election is as close as it appears to be right now, then Democrats will without question make their crucial voter mobilization efforts turn on characterizations of Trump and his cronies and allies as threats to democracy and the rule of law.
This is the ground on which Trump has always wanted to wage his 2024 election battle, from the day last fall when he announced his comeback bid as an effort to resume his interrupted presidency. If he loses this election or his freedom, it will be entirely his own doing.