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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump’s charges bring doubts, hopes and uncertainty in both parties

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks to a crowd in Collect Pond Park across from Manhattan Criminal Court, where former President Donald Trump was arraigned Tuesday, in Manhattan, April 4, 2023.

By Jonathan Weisman, Katie Glueck and Jazmine Ulloa

In an ordinary presidential-primary season, the indictment of a front-runner over hush money paid to a porn actress would, at the least, be an opening for rivals to attack. But a day after the arraignment of former President Donald Trump on 34 felony counts, one thing was clear: This will not be an ordinary political season.

The failure of Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination to go on offense — indeed, their willingness to defend him — underscored the centrality of the former president in the GOP. His opponents appeared to be using the same playbook that a crowded field of White House hopefuls ran in 2016, laying back, absorbing Trump’s blows and hoping external factors would take him down.

“The sad thing is that so many people accept it as part of the character and conduct of the former president,” Asa Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas who on Sunday announced that he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, said of the charges. “That’s not something from a candidate perspective that I’m wanting to dwell on.”

Still, the political landscape remains uncertain as Trump’s legal peril grows.

To some Republican and Democratic leaders, including former and current elected officials, strategists and others, the charges appeared to be flimsy, a hodgepodge of bookkeeping accusations that felt far less consequential than many had hoped. To others in both parties, the charges and attendant spectacle were troubling and had the potential to reverberate and hurt the former president politically.

At the very least, the charges will have to be answered in a court of law, extending a tawdry tale of extramarital affairs into a courtroom for a party that once considered itself the home of family values.

Trump might rail against the Manhattan district attorney who is leading the prosecution, Alvin Bragg, and the judge who will preside, but the court proceedings and possibly a trial will unfold in a potentially damaging manner as a Republican race for the White House runs alongside them.

“It’s still serious,” said former Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, a Republican critic of Trump who has doubts about the case. “Who wants to be charged with any crime? Most normal Americans will never be charged with a misdemeanor their entire life. To be charged with 30 of them? I mean, it’s shocking, and for somebody who you want to have as a leader in the country, it’s a disqualifier for me.”

Trump’s arraignment on charges that he falsified business records to cover up payments to the porn actress, Stormy Daniels, certainly did make history. Trump is now the first former president to face criminal charges — and he does so amid his third run for the White House.

But the moment did not yield a rush to abandon him by many voters or party leaders. On Friday, the day after the news of Trump’s indictment, Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster and Trump critic, assembled a focus group of voters who had cast ballots for him in 2016 and 2020 to ask how the charges were affecting their next vote.

Every one of the voters said they would cast a ballot again for the former president, the first unanimous verdict since she began assembling such groups for the 2024 election cycle.

On Wednesday, former Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who is exploring a run for the Republican nomination, told a Fox News reporter in New Hampshire: “Sometimes we have to put all our politics aside and say, ‘Is this the right thing to do for the country?’ This sure doesn’t look right.”

Even conservative evangelical leaders who might be expected to look askance at the extramarital dalliances contained in the allegations were supportive, continuing a pattern of overlooking Trump’s personal conduct that dates back most prominently to their response to the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016. Daniels said she had sex with Trump in California in 2006, as his wife, Melania Trump, was home caring for their baby, Barron, in New York.

“This has already been litigated by evangelicals in 2016 and 2020,” said Rev. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a Texas megachurch, who delivered an opening prayer at Trump’s campaign rally in Waco last month. “And I don’t think evangelicals want to re-litigate it.”

Asked whether he believed Trump’s denials about having a sexual encounter with Daniels, Jeffress said that was not his judgment to make: “That’s really between him, Stormy Daniels and God.”

If anything, Trump’s rivals now see a moment of peak power for him that they hope will dissipate.

“Trump just got a big old shot in the arm with people who don’t like where we are and don’t trust the government,” said Katon Dawson, a former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party who this year helped start the presidential campaign of Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “They are frightened of the unfairness that seems to be coming from the judiciary right now.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is widely expected to be Trump’s biggest threat for the Republican presidential nomination, was silent on the subject Wednesday, although he did win the endorsement of a conservative House Republican, Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Massie said in a text message that he had planned to make the endorsement “without regard to the arraignment, and decided not to let Alvin Bragg get in the way.”

Haley, a former South Carolina governor who was the second major candidate to declare for the Republican nomination, also kept her head down. Dawson said Haley and others would bring up the charges at some point, but not at a moment when conservative voters were rallying around the former president.

“There’s going to be a contest with real players eventually,” Dawson said. “Certainly, it’s Trump’s to lose right now.”

Democrats expressed frustration bordering on contempt.

David Pepper, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the charges against Trump might not have been as sweeping as some of the other cases still pending against the former president. But Pepper argued that any other candidate or political figure who was accused of engaging in the same activities would be under the same microscope.

“Is it as problematic as Jan. 6 or what happened at Mar-a-Lago? No,” Pepper said, referring to federal investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t investigate it.”

Other Democrats were sharper in their criticism.

“I won’t use the word ‘criminal’ until after he’s convicted, but he’s a morally bankrupt liar, and he’s been that for a while,” state Sen. Sharif Street, the chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said of Trump.

A spate of polling released Wednesday showed a one-on-one contest between Trump and President Joe Biden at a dead heat. A Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 54% of Republicans believed the indictment would help Trump secure the presidency, even as 58% of Republicans said the charges that the former president paid hush money to cover up an affair were believable.

“The concern is that Trump will get all the oxygen, which allows him to be the nominee,” Longwell said.

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