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Criminal charges prepared Trump for the big house – or the White House

A year ago, former President Donald Trump was at the lowest point of his up-and-down political career.

When Trump announced his bid to win back the White House on November 15, 2022, his grip on the party seemed more tenuous than ever, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis brandishing a saber newly sharpened by his re-election.

Trump’s hand-picked candidates had just blown away in the Senate midterms, depriving the Republican Party of a majority, and he took responsibility for Republicans who had failed to meet the House’s expectations — even as they wrested control of the chamber from Democrats.

By December, as he contemplated a future of high-stakes criminal and civil trials, it was clear to his allies that he was having difficulty convincing donors to contribute to the network of political committees funding his campaign and legal defense. Trump’s critics within the Republican Party thought they detected the smell of blood in the water.

What a difference a year makes. If these tribulations proved a nuisance for Trump, the trials were a political boon for him – at least within the Republican Party. GOP voters and many of their elected representatives rally around him every time he faces new legal action. So while the trials threaten his liberty and property, they have also helped put him on the verge of becoming the first Republican to win three consecutive presidential nominations.

“I’m happy, more than happy, with where we are compared to where I thought we would be a year ago,” said Susie Wiles, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, before taking the stage at ‘a rally in Durham, New Hampshire, in December. 15.

What keeps her up at night now, she says, is “complacency.”

The indictments gave Trump a political boost

The small circle of advisers running Trump’s campaign like to highlight his February visit to East Palestine, Ohio, as a crucial political moment in his bid to win back the Oval Office. Near the site of a train derailment that resulted in the release of toxic chemicals, Trump harshly criticized President Joe Biden for not doing enough to help residents.

But opinion polls of Republican voters show his most powerful boost came in April, shortly after a Manhattan grand jury indicted him on charges related to secret payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Before that, DeSantis was showing strength in some state and national polls, gaining ground on Trump without having launched his own campaign.

A Reuters/Ipsos national poll in mid-March put Trump at 44%, DeSantis at 30% and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at 3%.

By the first week of April, a Reuters/Ipsos survey found Trump at 58%, DeSantis at 21%, Haley at 1% and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy at 1%. Trump’s lead over his closest competitor, DeSantis, grew from 14 percentage points to 37 percentage points.

Since then, Trump has been indicted in Florida for illegally retaining classified documents from his tenure in the White House. He was indicted in federal court in Washington, D.C., on charges related to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And he was indicted in Georgia on charges related to his efforts to make up for his loss to Biden in this state.

Each of the criminal cases carries the possibility of prison time if convicted, but it is unclear whether any of them will be concluded before next year’s elections and nothing prevents a criminal to be elected president.

Additionally, Trump’s company was fined in New York for running a tax fraud scheme, he is involved in a civil fraud lawsuit in the state, and a jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation of writer E. Jean Carroll – who is pursuing a second case against him. A federal appeals court allowed civil lawsuits related to the Jan. 6 Capitol assault to proceed, and Colorado’s highest court ruled this month that he was ineligible to appear on the primary ballot because the judges determined his actions following the 2020 election amounted to an insurrection under the 14th Amendment.

Wiles described the avalanche of criminal and civil proceedings as a “scheduling nightmare” for Trump’s team. But they turned out to be a recurring political dream. At its core, each new development deprives Trump’s rivals of the oxygen candidates need to build their profiles with voters. But more than that, Trump has forced them to choose sides — to stand with him or what he describes, without evidence, as a coordinated plot led by Biden to defeat him through a lawsuit.

When DeSantis criticized Trump for his alleged silence in March, the former president’s allies were quick to respond. The lesson Trump’s opponents learned is that they would suffer within the party if he took him to task, even if his legal problems could create uncertainty about his viability in a general election.

DeSantis is clearly frustrated by this dynamic — so much so that he accuses Democrats of trying to help Trump win the nomination.

“They’re doing all this to shore up his support in the primaries, get him into the general election, and the whole general election is going to be all these legal things,” DeSantis said last week.

“It’s unfair. They’re abusing power 100%,” DeSantis said. “But the question is: Is it going to work? I think they have a playbook that unfortunately will work, and that will give Biden or to the Democrat, whatever, the possibility of going through this matter.

His rivals say Trump can’t beat Biden

Trump’s Republican rivals have so far failed to convince a majority of primary voters to abandon him. Part of that is because they haven’t been able to make a compelling case — the one DeSantis is making — that he is destined to lose to Biden again if he is nominated.

An NBC News survey in mid-November showed Trump leading DeSantis 58% to 18% nationally, with Haley up 13%. New Hampshire is the only state where polls suggest another candidate is within voting distance of Trump — Haley trailed him by about 15 points in two December polls in the state.

What’s perhaps even more striking, however, is the level of Trump’s support in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Biden. In June, an NBC poll showed Biden leading Trump by 4 points, 49% to 45%, nationally among registered voters. In November, Trump led by 2 points, 46% to 44%. Polls in swing states also suggest a close contest.

Trump’s dominance over Republican competitors in 2023, combined with the lack of evidence that his nomination would doom the party in the general election, led to a sense of resignation among some in the Republican Party who wanted to move in a new direction.

“I feel like in July I’ll be wearing a fucking MAGA hat,” one DeSantis supporter said at the Republican debate in Miami in November. “It seems inevitable.”

This is not the first time that adversity has benefited a candidate in the primary, although party members fear that the very source of this adversity could harm him in a general election.

When Iran took American hostages in 1979, a rally around the flag helped President Jimmy Carter avoid a major challenge from then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. In the short term, with Americans largely approving of Carter’s handling of the situation, he took a massive 24-point lead over his primary Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, in the December before the 1980 election. But Reagan ultimately earn.

There are now two key differences: Trump’s own actions are at the center of his adversity, and Carter never faced the prospect of a felony conviction.

The Carter-Reagan example suggests that politics can be a volatile business. Some Republicans have repeatedly asserted that their party is doomed if Trump is the nominee.

“We simply cannot expect that someone facing this number of criminal trials and, quite frankly, the conduct underlying these charges, could be a viable candidate in the fall election against Joe Biden,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on MSNBC. “Morning Joe” in August. Christie made the same argument this fall to voters across New Hampshire, where he centered his campaign, and on television screens across the country.

If DeSantis and Christie are right, they haven’t yet convinced Republican voters to abandon Trump. If anything, Trump is stronger than he was a year ago.

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