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Trump’s role as GOP kingmaker has left Republican loyalists in a lurch as the ex-president’s legal jeopardy grows

  • Trump’s growing legal jeopardy has his Republican loyalists on the defensive.
  • Some are downplaying any effect on Republicans’ chances in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
  • Some Democrats have urged prosecutors to proceed with caution.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The next two election cycles in America could be a roller-coaster ride for Republicans as Donald Trump and his namesake company face the prospect of criminal charges.

Political insiders are only starting to grasp this increasingly real possibility after New York Attorney General Letitia James’ recent statement confirming she’s now linked up with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who has been digging into Trump’s financial records after securing that authority from the Supreme Court.

While most Washington politicians appear, at least publicly, to be out of the loop about what’s happening a few stops up the Acela Corridor, recent interviews with more than a dozen members of Congress and political operatives  elicited incredulous looks, knee-jerk reactions, and wild speculation about what prospectively sidelining Trump would mean to the political world. 

They realize there will be repercussions — to their own messaging and for whoever runs for president in 2024 —  should Trump or his family-run business end up as defendants in a state courtroom. 

Trump is facing a slew of investigations, including on his business dealings in New York, attempts to tamper with the 2020 election results in Georgia, and his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Vance has convened a grand jury to hear evidence and weigh potential charges.

“It should mean more people jump in the race and don’t wait for Trump, claiming that he’s distracted,” Doug Heye, a GOP strategist who once served as a House leadership aide, said of the ripple effects from a Trump prosecution as scores of Republicans consider their own White House campaigns.

GOP leaders, Heye added, also wouldn’t emerge unscathed.

“While Republican leadership wants to put Trump in the rearview mirror, the investigations, in addition to Trump being back on the stump, make that impossible,” he said.

Kurt Bardella, a former House GOP aide who soured on the party with Trump’s rise to power, said Republicans dreaming of a return to majority status on Capitol Hill in 2022 and then recapturing the White House two years later should brace for a rude awakening. 

“Historically speaking, there’s this kind of perception that Democrats could have a challenging midterm. Things like this completely shake up the electoral calculus,” he said of a potential indictment. 

With that kind of uncertainty hanging overhead, having to defend Trump’s worst characteristics throughout the midterms is a messaging hole Republicans don’t want to be in, said Bardella, a former aide for GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California. 

“The not knowing is almost more untenable than if something were to happen because every Republican candidate on the ballot is going to have to make a wager as to whether or not they’re willing to bet their entire political fortune on Donald Trump’s legal status,” Bardella said. 

Trump remains the face of the GOP, remotely dictating details that vary from who’s allowed to hold leadership roles to which candidates are cleared to run in the 2022 midterms. He’s also the de facto Republican frontrunner for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024 until he says otherwise.

In the latest sign of Trump’s near-universal control of the party, he directed House Republicans to oppose the creation of a commission to study the attack on the Capitol. All but 35 of them obliged. Even Indiana GOP Rep. Greg Pence, the older brother of former Vice President Mike Pence, opposed the commission despite the fact that rioters were overheard hunting for his sibling and threatening to hang him.

Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images


‘We won’t even go there’

Trump no longer enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution, a protection he could rely on as a sitting president. And while it’s been more than four months since Trump left the White House, Democrats and Republicans say they’re just beginning to assess the political fallout should James, Vance, or prosecutors from another jurisdiction in the US file charges against Trump or his cohorts.

Democrats told Insider they expect Trump could end up playing the victim card if he or members of his entourage are criminally charged, and that could serve to energize a fiercely loyal base that is likely to be critical on the turnout front for Republicans in the 2022 midterms. 

“He would say, ‘This was an injustice perpetrated by the swamp.’ And maybe his people would go along with him,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.

On cue, the twice-impeached former president fumed on his blog last week over James’ latest statement confirming his company is under a state criminal investigation. “They failed to stop me in Washington, so they turned it over to New York to do their dirty work,” he wrote.

Privately, Republican operatives acknowledged the jarring ramifications of an indictment issued against their famously short-tempered leader. 

Still, GOP lawmakers in Congress ducked, dodged, and weaved when asked what they thought about Trump becoming a criminal defendant. Some looked to their hovering aides to save them from saying anything that could provoke the ire of their vindictive leader.

“It’s not surprising that we see politically ambitious Democrats trying to attack Donald Trump. It has been their mindless obsession for five years now,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a once-bitter Trump rival during the 2016 primaries, told Insider at the Capitol. “And I don’t expect any of them to seek treatment any time soon for Trump derangement syndrome.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t even break stride on the short walk from his office to the chamber floor for an early-afternoon vote when Insider asked for comment about the Trump-related developments in Manhattan. 

For his part, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stared for a full four seconds when asked how a Trump indictment would affect the party. 

“That’s your question, seriously?” the California Republican eventually fired back. “You guys are crazy.” 

“It’s a what-if at this point. We won’t even go there,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican of South Dakota.

Democratic lawmakers countered that conservatives were deluding themselves about Trump’s invincibility. 

“It’s not theoretical. It’s not a subjunctive about whether he’s going to be in trouble with the law,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, said. “It’s a reality.”

Proceed with caution, Democrats say

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat of California and former prosecutor, urged state officials delving into Trump’s most questionable activities to be overly cautious in their work every step of the way. 

“I only want him to be indicted if they’ve got the goods,” he told Insider. 

“As a former prosecutor, the people I worked with, they just want to follow the evidence. I hope that still applies,” Swalwell added. “But I think it’s important to show no one is above the law even after four years of him living like he was above the law.”

Whitehouse, a former US attorney and Rhode Island attorney general, also advocated restraint. 

“During the course of a criminal investigation, it’s usually the proper role of the prosecutors and the investigating agency to shut up and wait and make their case in court,” he said. 

Following proper procedures, though arduous, is paramount to preserving the integrity of the judicial process. Still, that might not matter to those who revere Trump above all. 

“You could have a pretty long run in which Trump and or his organizations are under criminal investigation and it doesn’t affect the politics at all,” Whitehouse said. “So far nothing has been able to intrude on the loyalty of the cult of Trump.”

One Democratic strategist eager for Republicans’ brewing dilemma sees some advantages for Democrats in coming elections.

“The GOP is staring down a midterm where the question before voters is going to be, ‘Are you going to vote for the folks who sent you a check to survive the pandemic or the people who want to plunge our lives back into a burning dumpster that occupies one of Dante’s levels of hell?'” the strategist said. “I know what argument I’d want to be making.”

Trump Rick Scott NRSC award

Former President Donald Trump receives an award from Sen. Rick Scott earlier this year.

National Republican Senatorial Committee


Nothing to see here

Trump was dismissive of any legal jeopardy when aides brought up the idea of a self-pardon while he was still in office, according to one former Trump advisor familiar with the conversations. 

But after losing the 2020 election, Trump’s team struggled to find blue-chip lawyers who could defend the suddenly exposed provocateur in New York, according to Republicans familiar with the Trump team’s efforts.

Still, Trump observers doubt even a perp walk by the former president would faze true believers. 

“Most Trump apologists will say it’s a witch hunt. They’ll say he’s being targeted,” one Republican strategist said.

It’s a refrain Trump and his supporters repeated over his years in the White House every time he faced scrutiny, one that deepened their loyalty.

Republicans need to flip just one seat during the 2022 midterm elections to again run the Senate, though that’s far from a guarantee considering they are defending six more seats than Democrats in the next cycle. 

The GOP does have favorable odds to take back the House, thanks to historical trends that put the incumbent president’s party on defense and also a redistricting advantage provided by Republican-controlled state legislatures. 

Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, one of Trump’s earliest supporters, and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, downplayed the importance of Trump’s legal troubles in coming elections.

“I think the election is going to be about what’s important to your family, and the Biden agenda is systemic socialism,” he said while hustling through the Capitol. “And that’s not what this country wants.”

Diehard conservatives won’t be swayed by partisan stunts, pro-Trump Republicans contend.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican of Missouri said Trump’s survived every partisan attack thrown at him so far, including two impeachments and the Mueller probe. So why start worrying now? 

“Him being attacked … I don’t think it’s a distraction,” Hawley told Insider. 

This story first published on May 20, 2021.

 

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