(March 20): Donald Trump’s claim of an imminent arrest jolted the 2024 Republican primary field, with party leaders rallying to his side while forcing his potential challengers to choose between publicly supporting the former president or backing the moves of a Democratic prosecutor.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans quickly coalesced around Trump, suggesting that his arrest would be overreach and politically motivated. Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc and Twitter Inc, and off-hours US political prognosticator, mused on his social media platform that if Trump is arrested and placed in handcuffs he “will be reelected in a landslide victory.”
In a post on his Truth Social media platform early Saturday morning, Trump said he expects to be arrested Tuesday as part of the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation into hush-money payments to an adult film star. He urged his supporters to protest in echoes of his public statements ahead of the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol to overturn his electoral loss to President Joe Biden.
Polls show Trump as the clear front runner for the Republican nomination, likely in a rematch with Biden in less than 20 months. His potential arrest injects a note of chaos early in the presidential primary cycle against the particularly tumultuous backdrop of three regional US bank failings as the country continues to find its footing after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The investigations gaining steam coincided with Trump’s intensifying efforts to retake the White House. Last week, he campaigned in Iowa, an early Republican voting state. On Friday, he posted a message on Meta Platform Inc’s Facebook for the first time since 2021, a megaphone he’s used as a powerful clarion for supporters and a prod for wavering allies. He had been banned from Facebook for the rhetoric he used around the Jan 6 attack.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, Trump widened his lead in the 2024 GOP primary race among 15 Republicans who have declared they are running or are considered potential candidates. Trump led Florida governor Ron DeSantis 46% to 32%, up from 42%-36% in February.
His grip over the GOP was on display Saturday as his allies like McCarthy piped up, while potential rivals, like his former vice-president Mike Pence issued support and others, like DeSantis, were silent.
In an interview airing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”, Pence said he’s “taken aback at the idea of indicting a former president of the United States” and that it would be “a politically charged prosecution.” He also declined to disavow Trump’s call for protests, saying they should be peaceful but that Americans have a constitutional right to assemble.
Just a week ago, Pence called Trump’s language during the Jan 6 insurrection “reckless” and predicted that history would hold him accountable. Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the first three candidates to formally challenge Trump, also criticised the investigation.
A Trump-aligned super-PAC issued a statement listing the potential GOP presidential aspirants who came out in support of the former president. That included the lack of response from DeSantis, who Trump has called his strongest potential challenger. There were calls Saturday by conservatives on social media for DeSantis to step in and prevent an arrest in Florida, where Trump lives.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been conducting a probe into a hush-money payment Trump allegedly made to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public before the 2016 election about an alleged decade-old sexual encounter. Charges in the case are widely expected, but no indictment has been announced.
Despite Trump saying he will be arrested on Tuesday, he has not received any official notification of charges or arrest plans by Bragg’s office and will be campaigning in Texas next weekend, a spokesman for the former president said in a statement issued later on Saturday. A spokeswoman for the district attorney declined to comment.
Trump chose Texas as a show of force because of the warm spring weather, its dense population and enthusiastic Republican base that could serve as a powerful political backdrop.
The former president announced his third White House bid last Nov 15, despite facing multiple investigations including the Manhattan case as well as probes into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents.
Asked whether he’d stay in the race if indicted, Trump told reporters before a March 4 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “Absolutely. I wouldn’t even think about leaving.”
Republican analysts said an indictment could bolster support among Trump’s hard-core backers. Trump supporters point to some polls that showed the former president’s support among Republicans increased after the Justice Department executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago resort last August in an investigation of his handling of classified documents.
“The prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected,” Trump ally and South Carolina US Senator Lindsey Graham said at a conservative forum in North Charleston on Saturday, according to The Associated Press. “They’re doing this because they’re afraid of Donald Trump.”
“I think it’s building a lot of sympathy for the former president,” said New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican who has called on his party to move on from Trump. Democrats “have misplayed this” and “it does drastically change the paradigm as we go into the ‘24 election,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union”.
But analysts said it’ll also add to Republicans’ sense that it’s time to move on from Trump because he has too much political baggage and can’t win in 2024.
This is uncharted territory for the US political system. Not since Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon has a president faced such a flurry of investigations, and neither of them were charged with a crime by a local prosecutor.