(The Hill) – Former President Trump is reportedly on the brink of facing charges related to a hush money payment during the 2016 campaign, throwing a wrench into the nascent 2024 GOP presidential primary.
Trump has already said in interviews that he plans to continue his campaign for the presidency even if he is indicted, and he was defiant in posts on Truth Social late Thursday that made clear he was undeterred by the latest specter of criminal charges.
But a possible indictment in New York would be another blow for Trump, whose extensive legal woes already have some Republican voters and leaders suggesting it may be time for the party to move on to a candidate with less baggage.
“Given all the unknowns right now, it’s far too early to know the political impact,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 campaign.
“That said, it’s hard to see how this is a positive for Trump,” added Conant, who now works with Firehouse Strategies. “At a minimum, it’s a distraction from the relatively well-disciplined campaign he’s run in recent weeks. It will remind a lot of voters about the chaos that they really disliked during his administration.”
The New York Times reported Thursday that the Manhattan district attorney’s office has signaled to Trump’s lawyers that he could appear before a grand jury next week, a strong indication that the former president could face criminal charges over a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet an alleged affair during the 2016 campaign.
A conviction would not be assured, but a decision to charge a former president and current candidate for president would be a significant step from district attorney Alvin Bragg.
Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels, and in a lengthy statement late Thursday denied any wrongdoing while casting the probe in Manhattan as the latest in a slew of politically motivated investigations into his conduct.
“This is a political Witch-Hunt, trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party while at the same time also leading all Democrats in the polls, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” Trump wrote.
“It is appalling that the Democrats would play this card and only means that they are certain that they cannot win at the voter booth, so they have to go to a tool that has never been used in such a way in our country, weaponized law enforcement,” Trump added.
The prospect of criminal charges is just the latest case of legal issues hovering over Trump and his 2024 bid, which some have speculated was launched last November in part to try and stave off an indictment.
The Fulton County District Attorney in Georgia is investigating whether Trump interfered in the 2020 election, and experts believe that probe could be the first one to bring charges against the former president. Portions of a grand jury report in that investigation were made public last month.
A Justice Department special counsel is simultaneously investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, including the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when pro-Trump rioters violently stormed the Capitol, as well as whether Trump mishandled classified documents after dozens of sensitive materials were found last year at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Trump and his team have been unflinching in arguing that the pileup of legal threats will only harden support among his most loyal backers, who represent enough of the Republican primary electorate that it could even be enough to win in a splintered field.
“It’s only going to embolden a lot of his supporters,” one Republican strategist said. “With a lot of Trump supporters, you’ve gone through the Russia hoax, you’ve gone through so many different impeachments, so when he is targeted like that it causes a lot of people to double down.”
Trump himself told reporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month that he “won’t even think about leaving” the 2024 race if he’s indicted.
And national polls still largely show Trump garnering the most support among declared and potential 2024 presidential candidates, with only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) coming close or surpassing him in some surveys.
But there are signs the party may look to move past Trump even if he won’t bow out himself.
Republican strategists have for months raised concerns that Trump may be the only GOP candidate who could lose to President Biden in a general election due to concerns about his conduct and character.
DeSantis has seen his star rise in the last few months since his resounding reelection victory in November, and he is making the rounds in early voting states as he moves closer to a 2024 campaign of his own.
Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official, launched an outside group to draft DeSantis into the 2024 race, and former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who Trump backed for a 2018 Senate run, tweeted Friday in support of DeSantis launching a presidential bid.
A poll of Iowa voters released Friday underscored the party’s Trump problem at its core.
The poll of 805 Iowans, including 257 self-identified Republicans, found 80% of them hold a mostly favorable or very favorable opinion of Trump, a higher rating than any other potential GOP presidential candidate. Seventy-five percent said they had a very or mostly favorable view of DeSantis.
But the poll also showed that Trump’s grip on the party may not be as iron-clad as it once was. Forty-seven percent of Iowa Republicans said they would definitely vote for Trump if he became the party’s presidential nominee, down from 69% in June 2021.
“Iowa is where the competition starts,” pollster J. Ann Selzer told The Des Moines Register of the data. “And someone who has already held the office and who won the state twice would be presumed to be the front-runner, and I don’t know that we can say that at this point.”