The Republicans on a tightrope

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 4 Apr 2023

The indictment of former US president Donald Trump on criminal charges represents a major dilemma for the Republican Party in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections, writes Manal Lotfy

The Republicans on a tightrope
Trump arrives at Trump Tower in New York where he will be formally charged for unprecedented criminal charges


Once again, Donald Trump has made history. He is now the first former US president to face criminal charges.

For any other person, let alone a former US president, this could be an embarrassing or humbling experience – but not for Trump.

He denies any wrongdoing and insists that the indictment is part of a political witch-hunt that will eventually help him to retake control of the White House and clean up “the swamp” in Washington.

The criminal charges against the former president include making hush-money payments during his 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims about an extramarital sexual encounter.

The indictment, which could provide Trump with the perfect piece of political theatre, may well allow him to control the narrative again at a time when his Republican Party is trying to escape his shadow.

Trump, 76, left his home at Mar-a-Lago in Florida on Monday, taking his private plane “Trump Force One,” a Boeing 757 repainted royal blue with Trump’s name in gold, to New York. Thousands of US and international TV crews filmed every moment as he headed to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York City before his court appearance on Tuesday.

Amidst all this pomp, armed vehicles, and lawyers and assistants, Trump’s message to his supporters was that he was an innocent victim of the US establishment, “deep state,” and liberal elites.

The indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg comes after years of investigation into Trump’s business, personal, and political dealings. More indictments could follow, including possible criminal charges due to the classified documents found in his home in Florida, the attempt to annul results from Georgia during the 2020 presidential elections, and Trump’s inciting his supporters to storm Congress.

Trump supporters and members of the media have been gathered outside Trump Tower and in the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse since Monday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump was arraigned before Judge Juan Merchan when he was presented with the charges against him and entered a not-guilty plea. The former president was fingerprinted and filled out paperwork and underwent a cross-check of any outstanding criminal charges. He was read his rights, reminding him of his constitutionally protected right to a lawyer and to decline to talk to the police.

But certain procedures were not applied. He was not handcuffed, and he was granted a private entrance to the court for security reasons.

The main charge pertains to a $130,000 payment made by Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels, an adult film actor, allegedly to keep her quiet about their alleged affair. Trump has acknowledged instructing his lawyer to make the payment describing it as “legal fees.”

Prosecutors believe that this amounts to Trump falsifying business records, which is a misdemeanour in New York.

Trump’s lawyers are seeking to have the charges against him dismissed without going to trial, emphasising that there is “zero” chance that the former president will enter into a plea agreement with prosecutors.

“President Trump will not take a plea deal in this case,” Trump’s leading lawyer Joseph Tacopina told the US network NBC’s Today Show. “It’s not going to happen. There’s no crime.”

Tacopina expressed his hope that the proceedings can stay “painless and classy” in an interview with US network CNN’s State of the Union. “Hopefully, this will be as painless and classy as possible for a situation like this. I don’t even know what brings us here.”

He argued that the payments to Daniels that preceded Trump’s indictment were personal and were part of a legal settlement that had nothing to do with the 2016 presidential campaign and that therefore documentation was not filed with the Federal Election Commission.

“This was a personal expenditure, not a campaign expenditure. Had it been a campaign expenditure, he would have used campaign funds, and then of course we’d be talking about… The outrage at Donald Trump [using] campaign funds for personal spending. They’d be baying for his scalp… He’s damned if he did and damned if he didn’t,” Tacopina said.

Before the charges were formally announced, reports suggested that Trump would face 34 felony charges but not be put in a jail cell or have his mugshot taken. The former president responded angrily to the leak of these details by fuming on his Truth Social platform that Bragg should now “INDICT HIMSELF.”

What effect Trump’s indictment will have in the coming months is too early to say.

But it represents a dilemma for the Republican Party, as while party leaders do not want to see the return of the former president, with his polarising personality and many scandals, they also do not want to alienate Republican voters who support Trump and want him to be elected for a second term.

How the two sides can be reconciled is a crucial question for the future of the Republican Party, because the possible return of Trump means strengthening the hard-right wing of the party at the expense of the centrists.

Before the indictment, Trump was finding it difficult to revive the popular base that had supported him in 2016, and public opinion polls indicated that his rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, would be a strong competitor for the Republican nomination in the 2024 elections.

Since he was indicted on Thursday, Trump’s team says it has raised $7 million in donations for his campaign. Trump wants to ride this support to obtain his party’s nomination, and at the moment the Republican Party stands behind him as does the right-wing US media.

However, it is possible that he can maintain the party’s support without this necessarily implying its nomination for the upcoming elections.

Former Republican Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who announced his presidential campaign on Sunday, doubled down on his call for Trump to drop out of the race now that he is facing criminal charges.

“The office is more important than any person. So, for the sake of the office of the presidency, I do think that’s too much of a sideshow and distraction,” Hutchinson said in an interview on ABC News.

“He needs to be able to concentrate on his due process.”

Opinion polls indicate that DeSantis may be the best candidate to defeat the Democratic candidate in the elections, probably Joe Biden.

For the Democratic Party and the Biden administration, the criminal charges against Trump a few months before the start of the primaries in preparation for the 2024 elections are an opportunity to enhance the fortunes of the Democrats among the millions of Americans who cannot stand the idea of Trump in the White House again.

They will probably vote for the Democrats despite the cost of living crisis, the worsening illegal immigration problem, the high crime rates, and the drug use that have spoiled the record of the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, Europe views the indictment as further evidence of the unpredictability of US politics and of Trump’s inconsistency and political fluctuations. Europe is facing the largest war on its soil since World War II, and Trump’s possible presence in the White House again would throw things into confusion.

Even so, some analysts believe that Trump may not be all bad news for Europe if he were to survive and win the White House again as he wants to end the Russian-Ukrainian war sooner rather than later, which is what millions of Europeans, and an increasing number of European leaders, want as well.

Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban tweeted a message of support for Trump on Monday, urging him to “keep on fighting. We are with you.”

Being in the news is the one thing Trump has always cherished. He now has many months ahead in which he will be at the centre of global media attention.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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