Donald Trump could soon have a startling new campaign poster: his police mugshot. I wouldn’t put it past him. He has already been boasting to confidants that he wants a “perp walk” – the public parade of a defendant in handcuffs, usually a badge of shame. Alternatively, he may decide on a dramatic showdown with the forces of law and order by refusing to leave his compound at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, protected by a rebel horde of MAGA-loving extremists.
In practice Trump may slip into the back entrance of a New York police station for his compulsory fingerprinting and headshot. Yet however privately alarmed he feels about being the first former American president in history to face criminal charges, he is bound to make the most of his latest brush with infamy. The case is sensational. His nemesis, porn star Stormy Daniels, has claimed with all the subtlety of a Carry On film, “I’m giving him a ride straight to jail,” but for Trump, it is yet more evidence that there is a mighty establishment witch-hunt against him.
The backstory to Trump’s indictment is as old as the hills. At issue is $130,000 in hush money paid to the raunchy Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged fling in 2006, shortly after Melania had given birth to Barron Trump, now 17 and a strapping 6’7”. Years later, Trump’s inner circle feared that Daniels was about to go public on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, when Trump was already reeling from the leaked Access Hollywood tape, in which he boasted about grabbing women by the “pussy”. His gross behaviour was forgiven by US voters then, and Trump sees no reason why it should dim his chances of re-election again.
“The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable – indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant Election Interference,” the former president raged last night on Truth Social, his own-brand Twitter. He predicted a “massive backlash” against President Joe Biden. But the canny Trump, 77, will also try to use his indictment to quash a younger rival: Ron DeSantis, 44, the bullish Florida governor, who has been running an undeclared campaign for the 2024 presidential nomination.
Imagine how the hard-core base of the Republican party would feel if DeSantis allowed Trump to be dragged from his beachfront sanctuary. The Florida governor would be instantly transformed from macho culture warrior to political weakling. As a result, DeSantis conspicuously bent the knee last night by declaring his state would not cooperate in any extradition request for his former mentor. When he did attempt a bit of snark against Trump a few weeks ago, saying, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of affair,” his poll numbers plummeted.
Earlier this week, a Fox News opinion poll on the 2024 Republican nomination showed Trump thumping DeSantis by 54-24 points, with other presidential hopefuls barely registering a blip. A leading Republican consultant from the swing state of Arizona said on hearing news of the indictment, “Everyone is lining up behind Trump. Let the coronation begin.” Unlikely as it seems, DeSantis may even be spooked into not running at all.
Yesterday’s bombshell landed after a seemingly brilliant guerrilla campaign by Trump to wrongfoot Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney (DA) who brought the case. A fortnight ago Trump announced to a huge fanfare that he was due to be indicted on March 21 and effectively goaded Bragg to come and get him. But the DA had some smart moves of his own. He let the case dangle to the point that the former president declared premature victory and began crowing that Bragg had failed to persuade the grand jury to indict him. Then came last night’s mic drop. Boom!
The charges against Trump could be the first in a series of major legal blows. The former president may soon be indicted in Georgia for seeking to overturn the results of the 2024 election there; and a special counsel is investigating his attempt to prevent Biden from taking office – incorporating not just the January 6 Capitol riot but a series of unconstitutional power-plays – and, separately, his retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Plenty of Democrats are cock-a-hoop that Trump is at last getting his comeuppance, but others fear the Stormy Daniels case is not only the first but also the weakest criminal case against the Teflon Don. It may never reach gale force.
We know for a fact that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid off Daniels, because Cohen owned up to it and was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion and campaign finance violations. He went on to turn against his ex-boss and was the star witness to appear before the Manhattan grand jury. In recent days, David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, also gave evidence about paying $150,000 to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, to “catch and kill” a story about her own alleged affair with Trump.
Former Playboy model Karen McDougal (pictured in 2004) has revealed her alleged affair with Donald Trump
Yet the Department of Justice declined to bring a similar federal case against Trump and the Manhattan DA may find it difficult to prove the motive behind Daniels’ hush money. Trump could argue that he was seeking to protect his wife Melania from Daniels’ allegations, rather than concealing them fraudulently from the voting public. Many legal experts believe that false record-keeping amounts to no more than a misdemeanour, rather than a felony. If the case peters out, Trump will be triumphant.
Of course, winning the Republican nomination is very different to winning a presidential election. Cumulatively, the legal challenges to Trump may be deeply off-putting to moderate Republican and independent swing voters. The prospect of voting a potential criminal into the White House – the most powerful office in the world – ought to make sane heads pause. Trump’s fury has also brought out some ugly tropes, including calls for violence against Bragg and anti-semitic dog-whistles against the financier George Soros, for supposedly backing the Manhattan DA’s campaign for office.
Trump has already trolled his opponents by playing the US national anthem, sung by a choir of January 6 prisoners, at a rally in Waco, Texas, last weekend, accompanied by his own recital of the pledge of allegiance. (Waco was the scene of the last stand by religious cult leader, David Koresh, before he and his followers were gunned down in 1993.) Lawyers say there is nothing to stop Trump running for president while facing charges. “There is not even a disqualification that says if you’re in jail, you can’t run,” said Saikrishna Prakash, a law professor at the University of Virginia.
Still, the sound and fury that accompanies every move by Trump could turn out to be an advantage for Biden. The 80-year-old president managed to win the last election from his basement, while sheltering from the impact of Covid-19. In 2024, he will need a new excuse to stay out of the limelight. With Trump on the rampage, hogging all the attention, the doddery Biden could sneak under the radar to victory again.