Republican leaders in Congress lamented the moment as a sad day in the annals of United States history. Conservative news outlets issued a call to action for the party’s base. One prominent supporter of Donald Trump’s suggested that the former president’s mug shot should double as a 2024 campaign poster.
Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely viewed as Trump’s leading potential presidential primary rival, rushed to condemn the prosecutor who brought the Manhattan case that led to the historic indictment of the former president Thursday. While not naming Trump, DeSantis said Florida would not play a role in extraditing him.
“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head,” DeSantis said on Twitter.
Up and down the Republican Party, anger and accusations of injustice flowed from both backers and critics of the former president, even before the charges had been revealed. Many said Trump could benefit from a wave of sympathy from across the party, with a base of supporters likely to be energized by a belief that the justice system has been weaponized against him.
“The unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN.
In some quarters, there was a darker reaction. On Fox News, host Tucker Carlson said the ruling showed it was “probably not the best time to give up your AR-15s.”
“The rule of law appears to be suspended tonight — not just for Trump, but for anyone who would consider voting for him,” Carlson said. One of his guests, conservative media figure Glenn Beck, predicted that the indictment would cause chaos in the years ahead.
How the indictment affects Trump’s bid to remain the nation’s top Republican and capture the party’s 2024 presidential nomination may remain unclear for weeks, if not months. The Manhattan inquiry is one of four criminal investigations involving Trump, and the outcomes and cumulative political effects of those cases remain to be seen.
But David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group seeking a replacement for Trump as the face of the Republican Party, said the indictment had already generated sympathy for the former president. McIntosh compared the case to “the old Soviet show trials” and argued that many Americans would view it similarly.
“We’re crossing the Rubicon here by mixing politics and law enforcement,” he said in an interview. “It’s a huge, huge mistake and a threat to our democratic process. People can disagree about who our leaders should be, but we have a long tradition of not turning it into a criminal process.”
Trump and his allies also believe the criminal charges carry political upside, at least in a primary race. The former president has spent much of the past two weeks on social media — and his speech Saturday in Texas at the first major rally of his 2024 campaign — trying to amplify the outrage among his supporters. He had also sought to influence the ultimate decision by Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, on whether to bring charges.
“This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history,” Trump said in a statement Thursday.
Trump’s protests of an unfair justice system come after he repeatedly threatened or sought to employ his presidential powers to pursue his real and perceived enemies.
He has also long sought to use the existence of investigations into political rivals as a cudgel against them, including in 2016, when he ran television ads declaring Hillary Rodham Clinton “unfit to serve” after being “crippled” by the investigation into her emails.
And he has spent years persuading supporters to internalize political and legal threats to him as deeply personal attacks on them.
In the past month, Trump improved his standing by 11 percentage points in a hypothetical primary field, according to a Fox News poll released Thursday. The poll found that Trump was favored by 54% of Republican voters, up from 43% last month.
“It’s the craziest thing,” Trump said Saturday at his rally in Waco, Texas. “I got bad publicity and my poll numbers have gone through the roof. Would you explain this to me?”
On CNN, Pence, who is considering a 2024 presidential bid, said the indictment had no bearing on his own decision about whether to run. He was one of the few prospective or official candidates to comment.
But the political effects for Trump could be determined in part by his response to the charges. His recent attempt to fight his legal battle on a political playing field has reignited the kind of behavior that tends to turn off moderate Republicans and independents. The defection of these voters from Trump and from his preferred candidates and causes has resulted in three consecutive disappointing election cycles for the party.
Some Republicans, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have said there are limits to the political benefit of an indictment.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 57% of Americans said criminal charges should disqualify Trump from seeking office again, while 38% disagreed.
On Thursday, Trump absorbed the news from Mar-a-Lago, his South Florida resort, after being informed by his lawyers, according to two Trump associates briefed on the matter.
Even though the former president had incorrectly predicted he would be arrested nine days ago, the indictment caught his team off-guard, according to several people close to him.
Trump aides had believed reports by some news outlets that the grand jury in Manhattan was not working on the case Thursday. Some advisers had been confident that there would be no movement until the end of April at the earliest and were looking at the political implications for DeSantis, who has not yet announced a campaign.
Trump’s allies see the New York case as the most trivial and had spent several days adamant that it was falling apart, without explaining why they believed this beyond faith in a defense witness.
Even the indictment will become the kind of spectacle Trump often seeks. His legal travails are likely to further suck up media oxygen and blot out other coverage of the presidential race, at a time when his closest prospective rival, DeSantis, is still introducing himself to voters around the country.
“I believe this will help President Trump politically — but it’s horrible for our country and the judicial system,” Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general and Trump ally, said in an interview.
Trump has been briefed on the process he will now go through and is expected to surrender next week, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Conservative news networks were brimming with conversations about the mechanics of the indictment after it was announced — and what it meant for the presidential campaign.
Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus Harvard law professor, said during an interview on Newsmax that a mug shot of Trump could serve as a campaign poster.
“He will be mug-shot and fingerprinted,” Dershowitz said. “There’s really no way around that.”
On “War Room” — a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist — Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump administration official, called for supporters to “peacefully protest.”
“We are going to see who are the politicians, who are the grifters and who are the America First patriots,” Gorka said. “This is a time of sorting.”
On Fox News, host Jesse Watters said that “the country is not going to stand for it,” adding: “And people better be careful. And that’s all I’ll say about that.”
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin wrote on Twitter that “arresting a presidential candidate on a manufactured basis should not happen in America.”
In Washington, Republicans continued to circle the wagons in defense of Trump.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Bragg had “irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our presidential election.”
“As he routinely frees violent criminals to terrorize the public, he weaponized our sacred system of justice against President Donald Trump,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter. “The American people will not tolerate this injustice, and the House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a top supporter of Trump’s and a member of the House Republican leadership, called for people to “peacefully organize,” a notable statement after Trump urged his supporters to protest before an indictment. That call prompted concerns about echoes of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by a pro-Trump mob.
Trump did not reiterate his call for protests in his statement Thursday.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, took the extraordinary step last week to involve Congress in an open investigation by sending a letter, along with two other House Republican chairs, demanding that Bragg provide communications, documents and testimony about his investigation.
After the indictment was announced, Jordan tweeted one word in response to the news: “Outrageous.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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