In a stunning development that adds another layer of complexity to Donald Trump’s contentious relationship with US law enforcement, the United States finds itself in unfamiliar and unprecedented territory.
The mercurial Republican, currently entangled in multiple federal charges, now presents the nation with an extraordinary possibility: a winning candidate who could potentially occupy the White House while under indictment, or alternatively, govern the country from behind bars.
The defiant billionaire has dismissed the notion that he would ever drop out of his party’s primary contest, reverting instead to a favored tactic of accusing his “corrupt” political adversaries of election interference.
“It likely won’t sway undecided voters but it will galvanize Trump supporters who might be wavering or looking to a candidate with less baggage,” Matt Shoemaker, a national security analyst and former intelligence officer, told AFP.
Prosecutors in both the federal documents case and the state-level financial fraud probe targeting Trump in New York will hope to have him face justice before the country goes to the polls in 17 months.
But there is no guarantee of either case wrapping up that quickly and Trump also faces federal and state-level probes into his efforts to subvert the 2020 election.
He would likely torpedo any outstanding federal prosecutions were he reelected, by attempting to pardon himself — an unprecedented scenario that would almost certainly spark a constitutional crisis.
But he would have little influence over state-level cases and his more immediate worry is the damage his legal woes could do to his campaign to win the Republican nomination in the first place.
The latest indictment allows Trump’s primary challengers — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence and others — to level the criticism that the runaway frontrunner is unfit for office.
But they run the risk of alienating Trump’s loyal base, whose support has only grown more fervent since the Manhattan indictment.
As a result, many rivals have rallied to Trump’s side, perhaps hoping to keep their powder dry until he is finally taken out of the running by further indictments expected in the coming months.
Trump is under federal investigation over his role in the January 6, 2021 US Capitol insurrection and media reports suggest racketeering and conspiracy charges are set to drop in Georgia in August over the tycoon’s campaign to overturn the election there.
“They are hoping Trump is eventually knocked out of the race by a series of indictments, including those concerning January 6 and the attempt to overturn the election,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
“That’s it. That’s their strategy… They won’t do anything. Go for the jugular? Trump’s teeth will be in their jugular before they can do the same to him.”
Prosecutors on Friday said Trump had been charged with almost 40 counts filed under multiple charges, including illegal retention of government secrets, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.
In a recent YouGov poll only half of respondents said it was a “serious crime” to falsify business records to conceal hush money payments to a porn star — the case that he faces in Manhattan.
But two-thirds said the same about removing classified government secrets from the White House and obstructing efforts to retrieve them.
The figures are 28 percent and 42 percent respectively among Republicans — a gap that suggests Trump’s latest scandal could mark a turning point in his primary campaign.