On Tuesday, Donald Trump became the first former US president to be charged with a crime. He faces possible jail time related to money he paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, allegedly to keep their sexual encounter secret. However unseemly, paying hush money is not illegal. But Trump is accused of falsifying his business records and violating campaign laws in order to do so. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former henchman now turned witness for the prosecution, has already served time for these crimes.
The Stormy Daniels case is only one of several legal challenges Trump faces and hardly the most important. Another possible indictment in Georgia relates to his interference in the 2020 election, when he infamously asked the Georgia secretary of state to “find more votes” on his behalf. Multiple criminal charges may come in connection to his incitement of insurrection on January 6th, 2021. The Stormy Daniels case does fit the typical Trump pattern of acting above the law. However, by comparison it seems inconsequential. Trump being found guilty of this crime would be like when murderous mobster Al Capone was imprisoned for tax evasion.
Ron DeSantis looked to be a strong challenger. But Trump has once again soaked up all the political oxygen and put his opponents in a bind
Trump may be the first US president to be charged with a crime, but he would hardly be the first to commit one, even leaving aside the crimes against international law and human rights that many presidents can claim. Bill Clinton struck a deal by which he was disbarred for five years to avoid facing charges of contempt of court in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Most famously, Richard Nixon could have faced felony charges for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Had his successor Gerald Ford not pardoned him, Nixon would have spent a long time in prison.
But the contrast between Nixon and Trump is telling. Though Nixon never saw the inside of a jail cell, he paid the highest political price. He was forced to leave office in disgrace with his career finished and his legacy forever tarnished. Trump, on the other hand, appears to benefit politically from his legal troubles.
After Trump’s meddling led to unimpressive results in the 2022 midterms, he seemed vulnerable in the 2024 republican presidential primary. Florida governor Ron DeSantis looked to be a strong challenger. But Trump has once again soaked up all the political oxygen and put his opponents in a bind. They can hardly take the side of the liberal African-American New York district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who is charging him. They have little choice but to rally to Trump’s defence and denounce the charges against him as politically motivated, thereby affirming his status as the party’s leader.
You can run for president from jail. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party leader, did so in 1920 after having been unjustly imprisoned for voicing opposition to first World War
Nor should we expect many Republican voters to be turned off Trump who weren’t already. In the Watergate case, millions of Americans were genuinely shocked at the president’s abuse of the law. But if you needed the Stormy Daniels indictment to tell you that Trump is a self-interested fraud with no regard for law or morality, then you must have recently emerged from a long coma.
Even if Trump were actually to be jailed, which seems unlikely to occur before the 2024 election, it would not finish his political career. You can run for president from jail. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party leader, did so in 1920 after having been unjustly imprisoned for voicing opposition to first World War.
The only way to end Trump’s political career is to beat him once again at the ballot box. Trump’s indictment may help him in the Republican primary, but it can hardly work to his advantage in the general election should he be his party’s candidate once again. It may rally Trump’s base, but it will also galvanise his detractors and repel those moderate voters who were key to his defeat in 2020. Everything that has happened since Trump lost that election – from his denial of the results to his incitement of the January 6th insurrection to his current indictment – makes him a weaker candidate in 2024.
The indictment increases the odds that Trump would be defeated in 2024 and that Democrats might win the Congressional majorities needed to mend American democracy
Nevertheless, the results of a Trump-Biden rematch are hardly certain. Biden is a vulnerable incumbent with low approval ratings. The US is a closely divided country where margins of victory are bound to be tight, especially when one factors in the role of the archaic electoral college. The election will not simply be a referendum on Trump’s suitability as president, but on all manner of issues that drive people to vote. Trump could very well win despite his alleged crimes.
Still, the indictment increases the odds that Trump would be defeated in 2024 and that Democrats might win the Congressional majorities needed to mend American democracy. If so, then Trump and his enablers will pay the price for his crimes that matter most.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American History at TCD.