Donald Trump again made history Thursday evening, this time by becoming the first former president of the United States to be indicted, stemming from charges related to illegal hush money payments made to a porn star in 2016.
And yet even while in legal jeopardy, blindsided by an indictment he hoped to avoid, Trump has tightened his grip on the GOP. His wrongful persecution has become the defining cause of the right. At least that’s how many Republicans see it.
“When our justice system is weaponized as a political tool, it endangers all of us,” said Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. “This is a blatant abuse of power from a DA focused on political vengeance instead of keeping people safe.”
Allies close to the former president previously cautioned him to avoid controversy and to move beyond personal politics to focus on the challenges facing the nation. If he could just do that, Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted in an interview last summer with RealClearPolitics, Trump had “a damn good chance of winning” not just the nomination but once again the White House.
“If it is a grievance campaign,” the South Carolina Republican almost sighed, “then he is gonna have a problem.” Less than a year later, Trump is a candidate again. And Trump is very much aggrieved. But this time, the grievance isn’t exactly by his own invitation. Graham now sees it central to his return to power.
“How does this end, Sean,” the senator told the host of Hannity on Fox News, “Trump wins in court. And he wins the election. That's how this works.” A loyal surrogate for that presidential campaign, he urged viewers three different times to go donate to the former president because “he has spent more money on lawyers than most people spend on campaigns – they're trying to bleed him dry.”
Graham isn’t wrong, not just about mounting legal expenses, but more broadly about Trump’s mounting lead in the polls since predicting nearly two weeks ago that he would soon be arrested. He was already the undisputed front runner in the polls before the indictment.
Now defense of the former president is the united cause of the Republican Party. It instantly shifted the 2024 landscape. The scope of the indictment is not known, though some early reporting suggests Trump could face more than 30 counts related to business fraud. Forthcoming legal details, however, were immediately eclipsed by political considerations Thursday evening.
The indictment was just more of the same, Trump said in a statement, likening it to “Russia, Russia, Russia; the Mueller Hoax; Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine; Impeachment Hoax 1; Impeachment Hoax 2; the illegal and unconstitutional Mar-a-Lago raid; and now this.”
For Republicans, it was muscle memory to rally to Trump’s defense like they have done so many times before. “Alvin Bragg has irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our Presidential election,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a statement echoed across all corners of the right from old Trump rivals, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who said the indictment signaled “the death of the rule of law,” and new Trump allies, like Ohio Sen. JD Vance who called it “political persecution.”
Trump loyalists seem to have been caught off guard Thursday by leaked news that a grand jury voted to indict the former president. Given that federal prosecutors declined previously to take up the issue of hush payments made ahead of the 2016 election, they had hoped that Bragg wouldn’t ultimately follow through.
Alina Habba, Trump’s attorney, said in an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News that she was “shocked” by the news. She confirmed that a booking at the New York City courthouse, complete with fingerprinting and a mug shot, was soon expected.
If the coming legal wrangling is unprecedented, the political fallout was somewhat familiar. Although Trump’s 2024 rivals were quick to condemn the looming indictment, either by accident or design, the Manhattan district attorney has shifted the national political landscape just 10 months before the Iowa caucuses.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to make his own bid for the White House, said the treatment of his old boss was an “outrage” that amounted to “political persecution.” A representative for the Nikki Haley campaign pointed RCP to previous comments the former ambassador made condemning the then still rumored indictment as motivated by “revenge.”
But perhaps the most significant development came from another Florida Republican, the only other potential candidate polling within striking distance of Trump.
That state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, earlier incurred the wrath of Trump and many in his orbit for not speaking out sooner when the former president prematurely predicted his indictment. When first addressing the controversy, DeSantis pledged to avoid “the circus” altogether. Worse in the eyes of MAGA? DeSantis made reference to the underlying facts of the case.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “I just, I can’t speak to that.”
But the governor did not take any shots, veiled or otherwise, at Trump Thursday evening. Instead, DeSantis condemned the indictment as “un-American.” DeSantis vowed that Florida, if it came to that, would not cooperate with forcing the former president from his estate in Mar-a-Lago to face charges in New York.
“Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda,” he said in a statement.
And just like that, with an assist from a local Democratic district attorney in a state no Republican has carried since 1984, it seems that rather than revisiting old grievances, a newly aggrieved Trump has moved one step closer to the Republican nomination. Lindsey Graham seemingly spoke for the GOP, while making little distinction between opposing an allegedly politicized prosecution, supporting Trump, and defending America itself.
“This is the most irresponsible and dangerous decision by a prosecutor in the history of the country,” the South Carolina Republican said. “He's opened up a Pandora's box against the presidency itself.”