Will prosecuting Trump help his campaign?

So far, it seems to be paying off

Fingerprint card with a fingerprint in the shape of Donald Trump
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Republicans in Congress rushed to former President Donald Trump's defense this week after his arraignment on charges of mishandling classified documents he took with him after leaving the White House. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a fundraising email that the case was a "witch hunt" and urged donors to "stand with Trump." Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) called the investigation against Trump "bogus," and Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) said it was a "political hit job" by President Joe Biden's Justice Department against the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Trump pleaded not guilty in a Miami courtroom and headed to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, where he raised $2 million at a "candlelight dinner" with top donors. His campaign said it had brought in $7 million in donations since Trump was indicted last week. "They will fail, and we will win bigger and better than ever before," Trump told backers at his Bedminster resort, suggesting he will make the indictment, and another filed by New York in April over the alleged cover-up of hush money paid to a porn star, a focus of his 2024 campaign.

It might be paying off already. A Morning Consult poll showed that Trump's lead in the GOP field grew to 59%, up from 55% before the federal indictment. And Republicans aren't just aiming to use the prosecution to boost support for Trump. They are using the federal case against the former president to "motivate aggrieved voters to the polls in 2024 elections, when the House and one-third of the Senate will be up for another term alongside the presidential nominees," according to The Associated Press. Could the federal criminal charges against Trump wind up helping him and the GOP?

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This could be Trump's ticket back to the White House

The Justice Department has "done Trump a massive favor," said Christian Schneider at National Review. Instead of having to answer for "what a revolting man" he is, Trump and his defenders now "get to argue legal technicalities and prosecutorial motivations, as specious as those arguments may be." Trump's allies have revived their complaints about Hillary Clinton's emails, using "whataboutism" to distract from the "damning" evidence against him. Nearly all the other candidates for the GOP nomination, including his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, "ran to his aid," suspending their campaigns against him "in spirit" if not in practice.

Trump is indeed "brandishing the indictments against him as a campaign credential," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. The charges ensure that Trump will be the "dominant issue of the presidential campaign, denying the country the larger debate the public deserves." Trump is indeed happy, because this lets him say "Republicans must nominate him as the only defense Americans have against Democrats and the so-called deep state." But this also plays into the hands of Democrats who "want to run against Mr. Trump because they think he'd be the easiest Republican to beat." This changes the campaign, but it's not clear who will benefit most on Election Day.

The White House is a possibility. So is prison.

Yes, "Republican voters have largely rallied behind him," said Astead W. Herndon at The New York Times. And Trump undeniably remains the front-runner to take the GOP nomination "despite his cascading legal problems." Also, his GOP competitors are "dreading the amount of media coverage" he'll get from his indictments. But Trump's mounting legal troubles "are part of the reason that many Democrats feel good about a potential matchup between President Biden and Trump," because they're reminding voters how exhausted they were by "the chaos" Trump brought to national politics. And everyone, Trump included, recognizes on some level that "his freedom is in jeopardy."

That is undeniably one of the possible outcomes, which makes the 2024 campaign "more than a race to return to the White House — it's a fight to stay out of prison," said Alex Thompson at Axios. His criminal trial is unlikely to be over before the 2024 election, "especially given Trump's long history of maneuvering to delay legal matters." And no matter what Trump and his proxies say on the campaign trail, legal experts appear to agree that the evidence spelled out in the federal indictment is pretty damning. If Trump wins the nomination despite these charges, or thanks to them, "he essentially could be campaigning for his freedom," because "winning the presidency would give him a chance to install sympathetic Justice Department officials or even try to pardon himself if he's convicted."

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.