WASHINGTON ― No former president has ever been indicted before in U.S. history, but the prospect of Donald Trump being the first elicited little, if any, alarm among members of his party on Capitol Hill.
Asked about the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination potentially facing jail time in New York over his role in a hush-money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, Republican lawmakers insisted that an indictment would actually help Trump in 2024.
“Ironically, this left-wing [district attorney] could play a pivotal role in reelecting Donald Trump as president,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) predicted on Tuesday, referring to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. “It is likely to rally Republican primary voters behind Trump.”
Even Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Trump critic, acknowledged the possibility that a criminal indictment could aid Trump’s quest for a third term. The Alaska Republican laughed when asked to comment on the “surreal” situation, ably summing up the absurdity of the moment.
“Only Trump could be helped by an indictment,” Murkowski told HuffPost, throwing up her hands and shaking her head in seeming disbelief. “Seriously, just listen to your question. I don’t mean to be funny, but [for] any other person, an indictment is not a way to win an election.”
Bragg is investigating Trump over the former president’s role in a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels in 2016 ahead of the presidential election. Daniels said she had sex with Trump in 2006, while Trump has denied the allegation.
A grand jury convened by Bragg could vote on whether to indict Trump as early as this week. The former president claimed over the weekend that he would soon be arrested, urging his supporters to take to the streets in protest.
Whether an indictment could help or hurt Trump politically has been a matter of hot debate in Washington, with cases for both outcomes in several newspapers. It certainly seems likely that charges brought forward by a New York prosecutor would benefit Trump in the immediate GOP primary. Rivals have already rushed to his defense, and he isn’t missing an opportunity to make multiple appeals for funding.
It’s less clear how an indictment would affect Trump’s chances in a general election, which is still more than a year away. He lost to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race in part because of Trump fatigue among a wary slice of the GOP electorate. More legal troubles ― in New York, in Georgia, and potentially within the Department of Justice ― could amplify that problem.
“Only Trump could be helped by an indictment. I don’t mean to be funny, but [for] any other person, an indictment is not a way to win an election.”
– Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
One thing that is evident is that Trump continues to hold a powerful grip on the GOP establishment. He’s the first president to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives, and the first to have tried to overturn an election he lost, leading to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Yet Republican lawmakers are still rallying to his defense and attacking a local prosecutor before he’s even unveiled charges against his target.
“A Trump indictment would be a disgusting abuse of power. The DA should be put in jail,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted on Tuesday.
When a reporter asked Paul what law Bragg had violated in order to deserve said jail time, the senator declined to state.
“I think we’ll stick with just what we tweeted out,” he told CNN.
Other Republicans have claimed Bragg was leading a politically motivated investigation that hinged on an untested legal theory dealing with falsifying business records to cover up a federal crime.
“We’re not talking about a local prosecutor going after, you know, a criminal. … We’re talking about someone going after a former president,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told reporters.
Top Democrats, meanwhile, were tight-lipped when asked about the potential Trump indictment and how it may affect the 2024 presidential race. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Gary Peters (D-Mich.) both declined to comment on Tuesday.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) also said he didn’t wish to speculate, but he suggested that any legal investigation involving a former president should be airtight before proceeding to court.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that if and when any one of these cases come to pass, I’d hope that prosecutors have all their ducks in a row,” Warner told HuffPost.
“This is an example of why Donald Trump is full of it when he says there’s a ‘deep state,’ because there’s no coordination between the ongoing cases happening right now,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) added when asked if he had concerns that charging Trump over allegedly falsifying business records could dampen public reaction to other possible indictments against him, including his role in the Jan. 6 riot.
Other Democrats argued that not prosecuting Trump because of politics would undermine America’s legal system and that an indictment would ultimately cost him.
“It’s hard to make ‘convicted of a crime’ a good look,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told HuffPost.
“He has to face the consequences of his actions,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “As long as the prosecutors are doing the right thing, I think it’s the right thing to do, and in the end, it will be the right thing politically.”
Only Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a moderate who is weighing whether to run for reelection in a state where Trump is very popular, suggested caution because an indictment could have a “reverse effect.”
“There’s many reasons not to support Donald Trump. There’s many reasons why he should not be president again, but you gotta be very careful … it just emboldens him,” Manchin said.