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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Indicted or barred from the ballot: For Trump, bad news cements support

Former President Donald Trump holds a campaign event at a convention center in Waterloo, Iowa, on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. Colorado’s top court ruled on Tuesday that Trump is disqualified from holding office again because he engaged in insurrection, an explosive ruling that is likely to put the basic contours of the 2024 election in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Rachel Mummey/The New York Times)

By Maggie Haberman

It may take weeks to find out whether the decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to declare Donald Trump ineligible to be on the state primary ballot will hold.

But its short-term political impact was clear by the time Trump stepped off a stage on Tuesday night in Iowa, where he learned of the ruling shortly before a scheduled campaign rally began.

Allies of the former president posted on social media that the ruling was an outrage, one that the U.S. Supreme Court needed to rectify.

Colorado’s top court found that Trump had incited an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and should be barred from the ballot under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Trump could remain on the ballot regardless — the Colorado justices put their ruling on hold as appeals are likely to proceed — but Trump’s team was hardly dwelling on that detail.

Even if Trump remains on the ballot, any court having said that Trump incited an insurrection will be used against him in a general election, in ways his advisers know could be damaging. But the Republican primary is different. Officials with Trump’s rival GOP campaigns privately feared that the decision would be seen as an overreach by Democrats, one that could bolster his current lead among Republicans in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, and in the primaries immediately after.

For years, events that would thwart other politicians have at best slowed Trump’s forward motion, with the prominent exception of his loss in the 2020 election to Joe Biden. Throughout 2023, Trump has exploited as political fodder events that would have sunk other candidates — such as being indicted four times, on 91 felony charges — with a Republican electorate that has been told Democrats are threatening their way of life.

Since March, Trump has perfected a playbook of victimhood, raising campaign funds off each indictment and encouraging Republican officials to defend him. Many — including some who are fearful of Trump’s hold on the party’s core voters — have obliged.

Democrats and the comparatively few Republicans who want to see Trump stopped have described his criminal legal travails as of his own making, and tried to highlight the details of the crimes he is accused of committing. They vary widely and include charges he conspired to defraud the United States with months of election lies aimed at subverting the transfer of power as well as charges stemming from mishandling classified documents.

But Trump has repeatedly collapsed all those cases into what he has called a “witch hunt,” one aimed at stopping his candidacy as opposed to holding him accountable. He and his allies are already folding the Colorado ruling into that same narrative.

Trump — who rose in politics in 2011 fanning a fringe lie that President Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, may not have been eligible to serve — now finds himself contending with his own eligibility to hold office from the fallout of his actions after he lost in 2020. But while most Republicans rejected his lies about Obama, a large number are backing Trump’s claim of being wronged.

Even people who dislike Trump intensely feared the ruling to toss him off the ballot will merely help him with a Republican electorate that will see it as interfering with an election, at a time when Trump is regularly described by Democrats as a threat to democracy.

“This vindicates his insistence that this is a political conspiracy to interfere with the election,” Ty Cobb, who worked as a lawyer in the Trump White House and who has since condemned his behavior, told CNN. “That’s the way he tries to sell this,” added Cobb, who mocked that claim of a broad conspiracy but nonetheless predicted the U.S. Supreme Court might unanimously overturn the Colorado ruling.

Trump’s campaign emailed out that portion of the interview.

“REMOVED FROM THE BALLOT — FIGHT BACK!” was the subject line of a second fundraising email from Trump later in the night.

Trump said nothing about the ruling at his Iowa rally, as Republicans filled the void for him. His Republican opponents — the few who remain from a once-crowded field — once again were left having to walk a line around the man they’re trying to beat.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is mocked daily by Trump’s team for his footwear and who has struggled to replace the former president as the new generation of the MAGA movement, may as well have been articulating Trump’s own defense in his statement.

“The Left invokes ‘democracy’ to justify its use of power, even if it means abusing judicial power to remove a candidate from the ballot based on spurious legal grounds. SCOTUS should reverse,” DeSantis wrote in a social media post.

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey whose core message has been that Trump is unfit for office, said that voters, not the courts, should decide whether he is president. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who has made significant gains in recent polling, made a similar statement.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the most vocally pro-Trump of any of the candidates this cycle, said he would withdraw from the Colorado ballot unless Trump is restored.

Trump’s team is confident such a restoration will happen. Privately, several of his advisers agreed with Cobb’s assessment that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up his appeal and side with him. It remains to be seen if that happens, or if the justices decide to let the ruling stand. If they do the latter, similar lawsuits would most likely be filed in other states, although a number of 14th Amendment suits have already failed elsewhere.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, Trump’s team, which was surprised by the Tuesday ruling, made quick work of trying to turn it into another galvanizing moment of victimhood. Their approach echoed something Trump’s oldest mentor, the ruthless lawyer and fixer Roy M. Cohn, who battled prosecutors himself, once said.

“I bring out the worst in my enemies,” Cohn once told the columnist William Safire, “and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.”

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