Donald Trump has been laying the groundwork to capitalize politically on what appears to be at least one if not more forthcoming criminal indictments.
Trump's play is already an obvious rerun of every past moment of seeming political peril for him: He will play the undeserving victim of a deep-state witch hunt and hoax. And of course, any attack on him will be an inherent attack on every one of his MAGA faithful.
Trump's keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference two weeks ago was a master class in stoking shared oppression and victimhood among his followers.
A little over six minutes into the speech, Trump told the room packed with his rabid supporters that they, not him, were the real targets of the supposed oppressors.
"Our enemies are desperate to stop us because they know that we are the only ones who can stop them. They know that this room is so important, the people in this room. They know that we can defeat them," Trump said. "But they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you and I’m just standing in their way. That’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in their way."
Around 19 minutes in, Trump defined MAGAs enemies with a special emphasis on prosecutors, alongside all the usual suspects.
"From the beginning, we have been attacked by a sick and sinister opposition, the radical left communists, the bureaucrats, the fake news media, the big money special interests, the corrupt Democrat prosecutors," he said. "Oh, they’re after me for so many things. Oh, those prosecutors. Some are racists. Some hate our country. They all hate me. They’ll get me for anything, anything."
Anything is one way of putting it, but perhaps a lot of things is more precise. On Monday, news broke that Trump declined to testify in the Manhattan district attorney's investigation into Trump campaign hush money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign—just one of a handful of federal, state, and local inquiries closing in on Trump, his family, and his family business.
Leading up to what became the most widely quoted excerpt of Trump's speech, he claimed to recount a conversation with a friend who asked him how he's able to put up with the constant legal badgering.
“How do you do it? How do you do it every day? They sent you subpoenas every day. They’re after you," the man marveled, according to Trump's recitation of the exchange.
Trump's response, speaking directly to the CPAC audience, was, "I do it for you, and that’s what I’m doing it for. I do it for you.”
Several lines later, some 26 minutes into the speech, Trump delivered what was perhaps the darkest line of one of the most ominous speeches he has given to date.
"In 2016, I declared I am your voice," he said. "Today, I add I am your warrior, I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution."
At one point in the nearly two-hour harangue, Trump also cast the MAGA clash with "RINOs and globalists" as an us-or-them armageddon.
"If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever," he said. "This is the final battle. They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country."
It's only March 2023, over a year and a half away from the general election. This is the type of inflammatory rhetoric one would usually deploy (if they deployed it at all) toward the end of a campaign. But Trump clearly needed it now, to get ahead of the legal jeopardy he anticipates facing. Trump wants his troops in rallying mode just as soon as one or more of those indictments drop. His best legal play may in fact be a political play in the eyes of Team Trump.
The conventional wisdom, in keeping with Trump's infamous Fifth Avenue murder scenario, is that an indictment will actually help Trump in the short term. The more, the better. After all, he's faced down numerous legal and congressional probes, a record two impeachments, and, up until now, inspiring a homegrown terrorist attack on the U.S. seat of government.
Some argue that Trump's standing among his followers actually swelled whenever MAGA faithfuls watched him beat another supposed deep-state onslaught.
After the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last August for sensitive documents he took from the White House, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found he netted 10 points against his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron De Santis, boosting his lead to 40 points, 57% – 17%.
The search absolutely boosted Trump's bottom line, with his fundraising surging to more than $1 million a day in the week following the raid.
Trump's PAC blasted out messages claiming “THEY BROKE INTO MY HOME” and “They’re coming after YOU,” along with a poll asking, “Do you agree that President Trump is being politically persecuted?"
Yep, was the resounding response—a welcome cash infusion for Trump’s PAC after it posted lackluster fundraising numbers earlier in the year.
These are the factors that likely run through the mind of someone like former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens when he contemplates whether any of a slew of criminal indictments might actually be a boon to Trump.
“It’s impossible to know what will happen legally, but the reaction of the majority of Republican Party voters who will participate in the primary will be that this proves that Trump is being persecuted, and they have to vote for him, otherwise they’ll be voting for the ‘deep state,’” explained Stevens, who's now an anti-Trumper. “I think it will help Trump in the primary situation."
But Civiqs tracking, which tends to be less variable than many polls, finds little evidence that Trump benefited from his impeachments, and the data indicate the FBI search actually hurt his standing with both Republicans and independents.
Among registered voters, Trump's favorability rating registers virtually no change after his first impeachment on Dec. 18, 2019. After his second impeachment on Jan. 13, 2021, Trump’s favorability actually ticks down a couple points, though it’s difficult to separate the effects of the impeachment from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Among GOP voters, one does start to see erosion in Trump’s favorability rating (the graph below) after he loses the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection ensues. The 2022 midterm results are the kicker for Republican voters, where Trump's favorables finally recede to pre-2016 election levels, settling in at around 74%.
Independent voters have a bigger negative reaction to the FBI raid, with his favorables dropping about 5 points, from 40% to 35% (graph below). Trump’s 2022 MAGA midterm debacle depresses them even further among independents to their current resting point, 31% favorable – 59% unfavorable. Those ratings are similarly comparable to his pre-2016 election standing with independents.
The other caveat that has shown up in multiple focus groups over the past year is that many Republican/Trump voters are tired of losing under Trump's leadership. Focus groups conducted by the conservative-leaning podcast The Focus Group and The Washington Post have both seen this sentiment taking hold.
One Iowa Republican featured in an NPR segment Monday summed it up nicely.
"I don't disagree with a lot of Trump's policies, but I think he's just too abrasive," said Ron Shord, who attended a Ron DeSantis speech in Davenport last weekend. "He's got too much baggage right now to get anything done if he could get elected. And I don't think he can get elected."
It's not that Trump voters and supporters don't like him anymore: It's that they want someone who can win. From that perspective, it's hard to imagine how they could be persuaded that an indicted GOP nominee would be better positioned to defeat Democrats at the ballot box in 2024—especially one that lost to them in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
Judd Legum is the founder and author of Popular Information, an independent newsletter dedicated to accountability journalism. Judd joins Markos and Kerry to talk about the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against Fox News and the recent revelations of behind-the-scenes deceit practiced by everyone from on-air host Tucker Carlson, to the owner of it all, Rupert Murdoch.