Credit…Mark Peterson for The New York Times
By Rich Lowry
Mr. Lowry is the editor in chief of National Review.
Donald Trump is the most-indicted front-running presidential candidate ever.
There is, of course, no other competition for this distinction. The myriad charges, with perhaps another set on the way, have shown no sign of denting Mr. Trump’s appeal among Republicans. Indeed, it’s not that he’s winning despite the indictments; it’s almost as though he’s winning because of the indictments.
The indictment by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, over the Stormy Daniels hush money changed the trajectory of the Republican race. Mr. Trump had already stabilized from the hit he took after the disappointing midterms for Republicans, but the indictment helped boost him nearly 10 points in the national polls, and he’s stayed on that elevated plane ever since.
Before this, the presumption in contemporary politics has been that a serious presidential candidate would have to withdraw if indicted. If the time and resources necessary to fight criminal charges didn’t dissuade him or her, the voters would leave the candidate no other choice.
Why hasn’t this happened to Mr. Trump? His ability to weather, and benefit from, his legal straits is a testament not just to his hold on the party but also to a deep distrust of the criminal justice system among Republicans.
There’s a natural suspicion when one side is indicting a leading politician of the other. Imagine if George W. Bush’s Justice Department had indicted John Kerry in 2003 when he was the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination to run against Mr. Bush in 2004. Even if, in this hypothetical, Mr. Kerry had been caught dead to rights on something, Democrats probably wouldn’t have assumed Attorney General John Ashcroft had the best of intentions.
As for Mr. Bragg, he’s a partisan Democrat who boasted about his work investigating and suing Mr. Trump in his election campaign and, sure enough, indicted him on gossamer-thin charges. If the circumstance were reversed and the prosecuting attorney in Jackson County, W.Va. — 74.7 percent for Mr. Trump in 2020 — found a reason to indict President Biden on dubious charges, Democratic voters surely would rally around Mr. Biden in sympathy and outrage.
On top of this, there is the Russia investigation of Mr. Trump, which began and continued for so long largely as a function of the F.B.I.’s incompetence and hostility to him. At the time, he denounced the unfairness of it all, and ultimately, based on any reasonable reading of the record, was vindicated. When he invokes “the Russia hoax” or “Russia, Russia, Russia” to paint other investigations as simply further attempts to get him, Republicans tend to believe it.
The split screen with I.R.S. whistle-blowers testifying that Hunter Biden was given every consideration by the Department of Justice in an investigation that is potentially perilous to President Biden only helps Mr. Trump’s case.
Then there’s the politics of attention. As Mr. Trump showed in 2016, when it comes to media coverage, quantity has a quality all its own. The indictments make everything about him, more so than is the case ordinarily. His motorcades haven’t been covered as extensively since he was president, and his latest Truth Social posts denouncing his mistreatment are being covered as breaking news.
It all contributes to the miniaturization of the rest of the field. Other candidates are given the choice of saying what many Republicans want to hear about how shabbily Mr. Trump is being treated and end up simply echoing his points or condemning his underlying conduct and seeming to pile on with his bitterest and most-hated enemies.
There may be Democrats who still believe they can somehow indict Mr. Trump out of presidential contention, but many Republicans who oppose him have dreaded the indictments as sure to bolster him, and so it has proved.
A figure like Mr. Trump, a colorful populist adored by a political base that loves him, in part, because he is so embattled, is unlikely to be taken down by the very authorities he says are corrupt and arrayed against him.
In the 1930s, impeachment didn’t stop Gov. Huey Long, the scourge of Louisiana’s establishment, who was entertaining and cunning and seemed to care nothing for rules or norms. After escaping impeachment on charges including blasphemy, partying with a stripper (some things never change) and subornation of murder, he went on to become a U.S. senator, popular with his base until his assassination in 1935.
Being barred from the House and various legal entanglements didn’t stop Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, a larger-than-life civil-rights activist who portrayed himself as the victim whenever faced with potential consequences for various financial and personal transgressions. He won a special election by seven to one after being barred and then won handily again.
Mr. Powell had decamped to the Bahamas for more than a year to avoid subpoenas, then finally came back to New York City in 1968 to surrender and accept the terms of his parole, smoking a cigar. The Daily News recounted, “Then uptown he went, grinning broadly. Screaming supporters mobbed him at the Renaissance Ballroom at Seventh Avenue and 138th Street. Women flung themselves deliriously upon him. Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home! ‘Keep the faith,’ he instructed them one by one.”
Mr. Trump engenders a similar reaction among his supporters. It may be that nearly six months from now, in the cold light of day before the Iowa caucuses, Republicans conclude the burden of his potential trials next year in terms of time, expense and political fallout makes him too risky a nominee. In the meantime, almost every Republican who wants to beat him is thinking, “Please, no more indictments.”
A correction was made on
Aug. 7, 2023
An earlier version of this article misstated an action taken against Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the House of Representatives. He was barred from taking his seat in the House in 1967; he was not expelled.
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