April 24, 2024

Donald Trump’s prediction that he will be arrested this week has yet to come true – but as the waiting game for criminal charges goes on, the former president is plotting a strategy designed to both keep him out of jail and turbo-boost his historic bid to return to the White House.

It is a daunting task, and hunkered down in his Mar-a-Lago home, Mr Trump seems resigned to becoming the first US president to be indicted for a crime. Yet it’s also clear he will not go quietly. His past choices in moments of political crisis are a useful guide to what we might see next.

When cornered by political adversaries, Mr Trump punches back.

Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, he leaned in to conflict when other politicians might have backed off. Blasted for criticising war hero John McCain? Trump upped his attacks. Accused of sexual harassment before a debate with Hillary Clinton? He held a press conference with Bill Clinton’s sexual accusers.

During his presidency, it was the same story through two impeachments, a special counsel investigation of Russia election meddling and countless smaller controversies.

“If Trump is indicted, the playbook remains exactly the same,” says Bryan Lanza, a Republican strategist and Trump adviser. “Attack the legal as political.”

The best defence, as the American football saying goes, is a good offence.

Mr Trump is already punching back against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, framing him as a liberal prosecutor hell-bent on pursuing political retribution against the former president.

A press release on Monday referred to him as a “progressive activist”, a “rogue prosecutor” and a “woke tyrant who has politicised the justice system”.

Expect those attacks to continue if an indictment is announced and for Mr Trump to portray himself as a victim of a leftist plot – a common theme of persecution Mr Trump has also regularly relied on in his political career.

Mr Trump, a New York native, watches the US Open in 1987IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,

Mr Trump, a New York native, watches the US Open in 1987

According to Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, the former president is both “invigorated and angered” by his possible arrest. He is focused on appearing defiant in any possible public appearances and ready to portray the criminal case as a de facto attack on his supporters.

The former president will have at least two prime opportunities to mount his counterattack in the days ahead. One is a planned rally in Waco, Texas. And if the past is any guide, Rally Trump is Mr Trump at his most unvarnished, going off script and on the attack, and feeding off the energy of his crowds.

The other opportunity for Mr Trump, if he is indeed indicted, will come on the day he could travel to New York City for any police booking and arraignment.

According to Ms Haberman, he is fixated on the so-called “perp walk” – a New York tradition where the accused is paraded through a crush of reporters on the way into the Lower Manhattan courthouse. Because of security concerns, that may not happen, but another judicial tradition, the press conference on the courthouse steps, seems much more probable.

It would give the former president, steeped in New York tabloid legal drama, the opportunity to lash out at his accusers, portray himself as the victim of a liberal elite and dominate the headlines across the US.

Such themes are already playing out in Mr Trump’s campaign fundraising appeals, which have reached a frenzied pace since he speculated that he may be on the verge of being charged with a crime.

“If this political persecution goes unchallenged, one day it won’t be me they’re targeting, it’ll be you,” read one email. According to a Trump adviser quoted in the Washington Post, the campaign has raised more than $1.5m since Saturday.

For the moment, the standard response from Republicans – including Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and other prominent elected officials – has played into Mr Trump’s hands. They echo Mr Trump’s rhetoric in condemning the New York investigation as an illegitimate political attack.

“I’ve been asked by multiple reporters if an indictment would lead me to rescind my endorsement of Donald Trump,” Ohio Senator JD Vance said. “The answer is: hell no. A politically motivated prosecution makes the argument for Trump stronger. We simply don’t have a real country if justice depends on politics.”

That strategy is less tenable for Mr Trump’s Republican political rivals, however, who may have to step up their efforts to wrest the spotlight from the former president. It’s not a coincidence that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, potentially his most formidable 2024 nomination opponent, directly criticised Mr Trump for the first time this week.

In the past, a frontal attack on Mr Trump has been a fool’s errand for his Republican adversaries – a move of desperation that only solidifies Mr Trump’s standing with his base. Further attacks, with a metaphorical wrestling match in the mud, may only strengthen his position.

“If he’s indicted, he becomes bulletproof,” Mr Lanza says.

In the longer term, however, Mr Trump’s situation is not without risks.

Setting aside the possibility of conviction and a prison sentence, his legal troubles – which go beyond just the New York charges and include investigations by Georgia officials and a federal special counsel – highlight the character traits many Republican voters have said they like least about him. His pugnacious online persona and his lack of personal discipline were targeted by Mr DeSantis in his recent swipes for a reason.

It also could be a significant distraction for the president and his campaign team, which will have to react to events in New York that are entirely out of their control, where court appearances compete with Republican debates and primary contests on Mr Trump’s calendar.

And if Mr Trump were to overcome the obstacles and win the Republican nomination, his legal travails are much more likely to be a negative component against the Democratic nominee.

“In the end, being indicted never helps anybody,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said during an interview on ABC News. “Donald Trump is not someone who could be a winning general election candidate for the Republican Party.”

While Mr Trump has survived the kind of scandals and investigations over the past eight years that would annihilate other candidates, luck can run out and even the best of political instincts can fail when the circumstances change.

Even the sturdiest of ships can wreck in uncharted waters.

North America correspondent

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