WASHINGTON – When Republicans talk about whether Donald Trump will run for president again in 2024, many hasten to add it may depend on what is now a big unknown: His legal troubles.
Can an indicted ex-president still lead a political party?
No one knows for sure, but some Republicans are increasingly discussing the possibility.
Criminal charges would, at the very least, create political problems for Trump, but allies and analysts said they would not necessarily prevent him from campaigning for Republicans in 2022 congressional races and even pursuing another presidential campaign in 2024.
“None of this matters,” pollster Frank Luntz said. “It doesn’t matter for his decision making or for anyone who votes for him.”
He added: “It’s just so irrelevant.”
If anything, indictments over past business practices might trigger Trump to mount another campaign if only to spite his enemies, some Republicans who spoke to USA TODAY said. The ex-president and his supporters would claim that indictments are the products of a Democratic plot to derail him and his agenda.
Trump himself suggested as much after the Attorney General’s office in New York state announced that its investigation of certain financial dealings had moved from a “civil” matter to a “criminal” one.
In a lengthy written statement referring to himself in the third person, Trump said state prosecutors are “possessed, at an unprecedented level, with destroying the political fortunes of President Donald J. Trump and the almost 75 million people who voted for him.”
‘If they indict him, I think he will run’
With the next presidential election still three years away, no one knows if Trump will run again, maybe not even himself. Few if any know whether he will face criminal charges, and what those charges might mean for him politically.
Yet some people close to Trump do not believe indictments would affect his decision one way or the other, certainly as he plans to campaign for like-minded Republicans in 2022 and possibly if he runs himself in 2024.
“It’s just going to (tick) him off,” said one former Trump administration official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.
The former official and others said they believe Trump would prefer not to run again because he likes his current lifestyle, including frequent rounds of golf at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., and his country club in Bedminster, N.J. Some allies said Trump is only teasing a run in order to keep his name in the news, maintain influence in the Republican Party and raise money.
One thing could change Trump’s mind, allies said: An indictment that triggers his intense need to strike back at his enemies.
“If they indict him, I think he will run,” the former official said.
Nevertheless, criminal charges would certainly create problems for Trump, allies said. It could hurt his fundraising. It would embolden his political opponents, including Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who say the party needs to get past the volatile ex-president.
An indicted candidate also faces major time and financial drains to prepare for a trial, a process that could take years.
Some Trump opponents also believe he is staying active, making statements and planning a rally, only in order to raise money, and that he will opt out of another presidential race because he fears another loss.
“His fragile ego couldn’t allow him another loss,” said Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney. “So he’ll find any excuse whatsoever for him to avoid a 2024 race.”
‘We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization’
No one knows exactly what Trump might be charged with, or even whether he will be charged at all, but at this point, he walks along many legal landmines.
Speculation about Trump’s legal future revved up this week after the New York Attorney General’s office announced it had told the Trump Organization that its investigation “is no longer purely civil in nature.”
“We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity,” said spokesman Fabien Levy, working along with the Manhattan district attorney’s office in New York City.
New York prosecutors are conducting a tax and bank fraud inquiry that threatens Trump and his business officials.
The former president also faces potential legal troubles in Georgia. Local prosecutors there are investigating his efforts to pressure state officials into changing election results that contributed to President Joe Biden’s victory.
There are also pending civil lawsuits against the former president, including a pair of cases from women who said Trump sexually assaulted them, and t denied the allegations by defaming them.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking to create a special commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to reverse the election results. A commission investigation could reveal embarrassing details about Trump’s actions before and during the riot.
Trump has described these probes as “witch hunts” and “hoaxes.”
He and his allies noted that he has been under investigation since he first announced in 2015 he was running for president.
None of these investigations led to any indictments. Some, however, did lead to two impeachments of Trump, one over the insurrection and the other over his efforts to get the nation of Ukraine to investigate then-candidate Joe Biden and his son.
There was also a critical report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Trump’s actions during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
‘If you come for the king, you best not miss’
Trump isn’t the only one under political pressure over investigators – potential prosecutors face tough choices as well.
Any prosecutor who pursues an indictment against an ex-president needs to have a strong case, legal analysts said. Otherwise, Trump and allies will be more able to turn the case into a political weapon.
Trump and others have already accused New York Attorney General Letitia James of political motives, given her reported interest in running for governor of the state.
“If you come for the king, you best not miss,” said Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer. “An indictment alone won’t necessarily hurt Trump with his base, which will view this all as part of a political witch hunt.”
Speaking strictly as a legal matter, an indictment – nor a conviction – would not prohibit Trump from running again, or campaigning for any Republican who wants his help.
“Ironically, you can’t get hired for most government jobs with a felony conviction, but you can be elected president,” said Barb McQuade, a former federal prosecutor and now a law professor at the University of Michigan.
Still, any legal case against Trump must be seen as legitimate if voters are to take it seriously. Or some voters, that is.
Trump and his supporters will see any legal action as a political attack, and act accordingly, analysts said.
John J. Pitney, Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said he can see the Trump fundraising email now: “‘The Deep State is trying to put me in jail!'”
“On the other hand,” Pitney said, “his lawyers will undoubtedly advise him that talking about the case in public will increase his legal jeopardy.”
As for future political races, pollster Luntz said Trump probably has a good idea whether he will run again in 2024, but may also change his mind repeatedly between now and then.
“No one knows except for him,” Luntz said.