GOP strategists say Trump’s rising legal problems could kneecap him against Biden

A new indictment of former President Trump in connection to his actions surrounding Jan. 6 could pose a real problem for his 2024 White House campaign as he faces potential criminal charges for the third time this year, some Republicans say.

Trump said Tuesday that he’s a target of a federal investigation, which generally signals an indictment is on the way.

His legal issues so far appear to have helped more than hurt him with GOP primary voters, but the piling up of legal cases could cause real problems in a general election, Republicans say. And that could lead to the reelection of President Biden, despite his troubles.

“It’s hard to think this does anything to improve his numbers in a general election,” said Brian Seitchik, a Republican strategist and former Trump campaign staffer. 

Former President Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, June 24, 2023.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted nearly two years after the riots at the Capitol found more than 60 percent of Americans believed Trump bore a lot or some responsibility for the events on Jan. 6. That includes many independent and moderate voters who Trump will need to win over from Biden next November.

A growing body of evidence suggests GOP candidates are not punished and are more likely to be rewarded by primary voters for embracing Trump and his rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election and the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

But GOP candidates in congressional and gubernatorial races last year who did so often cost the party in the general election. 

“For us to be a forward-looking party that’s going to be able to win a general election and nationally, we cannot deny reality,” said Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump White House official who has become a prominent critic of her old boss.

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Trump’s grip on the GOP primary is “ironclad,” as Seitchick described it.

A RealClearPolitics polling average showed Trump at roughly 54 percent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 20 percent, former Vice President Mike Pence at 6 percent and all other contenders at less than 5 percent — after Trump’s two previous indictments. 

“I don’t think this latest indictment will have much of an impact on the primary,” Seitchick said.

Republican strategists believe Trump’s devoted base will ultimately rally around the former president no matter what, as evidenced by his boost in support following his first two indictments this year.

“We’ve seen Trump indicted earlier this year and seen his numbers go up unless one of the rival candidates chooses to make electability an argument,” Seitchick added. “If they continue to sort of stand in opposition to the FBI and Department of Justice, it’s hard to think it would have a negative impact.”

Some Republicans say Trump’s legal problems could yet hurt him in a primary — especially if there’s a conviction.

“I think there is the potential for an awakening within the base and within the party leadership writ broadly that, you know, ‘Do we have to deal with all this drama all the time and how are we going to win an election when we’re constantly litigating all of his legal battles,’” said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.

It is early in the GOP primary — there hasn’t even been a debate in the contest yet. That suggests there still could be changes in how Trump is seen by primary voters.

“I think Republican voters have kind of checked out on this whole thing — they’re not really paying too close attention. I think you’ve got to have actual charges filed and you’ve got to have some trial dates set, and that’s when I think things start to feel a lot more real,” said Republican strategist Keith Naughton.

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Yet Trump’s rivals in the GOP primary on Tuesday largely focused on concerns about the politicization of the Justice Department.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, generally seen as Trump’s toughest GOP opponent, said in South Carolina that Trump should have stepped in more forcefully during the riots that day, but in a CNN interview later in the day said Trump should not be charged over Jan. 6. The DeSantis war room also did not amplify his initial comments from South Carolina.

DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) pointed to broader concerns that Trump’s fixation on the 2020 election, and the legal problems that have followed, will ultimately make him less electable.

“That’s why I am running,” Haley said on Fox News. “It’s because we need a new generational leader. We can’t keep dealing with this drama. We can’t keep dealing with the negativity. We can’t keep dealing with all of this.”

Tags Donald Trump GOP presidential primary Joe Biden Nikki Haley Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis

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