Trump’s indictment by a Manhattan grand jury is connected to payments that his attorneys made to a woman during the 2016 presidential campaign. The payments were reportedly to silence her claims of an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump a decade prior.
Trump and his supporters have called the prosecution a “witch hunt” and claim the charges are purely politically motivated as he enters the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Just about everything about the indictment, from its timing to its possible impact on the election and the future of presidential politics, is unprecedented, UVA experts say.
“No former president has been indicted for a crime, nor has any presidential candidate been indicted during a presidential campaign, but that’s not the only way that these circumstances are unprecedented,” said Jennifer Lawless, UVA’s Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics with the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “It’s also unprecedented to use an indictment as a boon to a campaign.”
Lawless said the charges could work in Trump’s favor, at least in the Republican primary.
“In the case of Donald Trump, the indictment is part of a larger ‘witch hunt’ narrative that can generate enthusiasm among his supporters,” she said.
But emphasizing the prosecutorial vendetta theme during the campaign could affect the American legal system as well as the election, said Bertrall Ross, the Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the UVA Karsh Center for Law and Democracy.
“If Donald Trump is successful at persuading a significant segment of the American people that his indictment and the subsequent legal process is a partisan witch hunt, then the result could be the politicization of the rule of law in the United States, with dangerous consequences,” Ross said. “The composition and power hierarchy of the American republic has allowed the legal system to stand against claims that it operates discriminatorily against poor and minority communities, but it will be much more difficult for it to stand against claims that it favors one party over the other.”
How the indictment will affect the upcoming primary is uncertain, said Barbara A. Perry, the Gerald L. Baliles Professor and director of presidential studies at UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.
“Because this is unprecedented in presidential history, no one can predict from past patterns how Trump’s indictment will influence his candidacy for the GOP nomination,” she said. “Those who support him no matter what will continue to do so. Those who would never support him will never do so and will support another candidate in the primaries/caucuses.
“If he should garner the nomination for a third time, the question will be, ‘How will those who held their nose and voted for him in 2016 and 2020 view him in 2024?’ A few might vote for the Democratic candidate. Some will vote for Trump again because they are conservative. And some won’t vote at the top of the ticket.”
While its impact is unknown, the indictment is unlikely to immediately hinder Trump’s primary campaign, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the Center for Politics.
“This indictment may or may not be meaningful in the Republican primary, but I don’t think this, and other looming legal troubles that seem more significant than this case, help him in a general election,” Kondik said. “In the primary, I doubt this does any short-term damage to Trump, and maybe not in the longer term either.”
Kondik said Republicans opposing Trump are in an odd position of defending their rival.
“Normally you’d think someone’s opponents in a primary would have a field day with their leading rival being indicted, but that’s just not how Republicans are viewing this case, which they believe is overly politically motivated,” Kondik said. “Trump’s great political gift is weaponizing the distrust many Republicans already have toward government institutions (and media) and using that to his own advantage.”
Still, the indictment puts the GOP at a crossroads, Lawless said.
“The party and its leaders can respect the process and the rule of law, or they can eschew it,” she said. “The day before the indictment, Trump and many Republicans commended the grand jury for adjourning without, they assumed, indicting. They said the process worked, that these were smart women and men, and that [Manhattan District Attorney Alvin] Bragg made the right decision. Twenty-four hours later, they changed their tune.”
Kondik said Trump surviving numerous scandals is, in some ways, a reflection of modern American society, as American politics has grown more shameless.
“Trump is the most shameless figure in modern American political life, but one could apply the ‘shameless’ label to Bill Clinton, too,” Kondik said. “A few years ago, Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was confronted with his blackface yearbook photo scandal. I wonder if in a different era he would have heeded calls to resign, but he rebuffed those calls and remained in office anyway.”