Donald Trump will try to turn his indictment to his advantage by stoking anger among core supporters over what they see as the weaponization of the justice system, though it may also push more Republicans tired of the drama around him to look for another presidential candidate.
Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury after an investigation into hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign, becoming the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges even as he makes another run for the White House.
The prosecution of a former president is unprecedented in U.S. history. But his supporters view it as politically motivated, and it may only harden their resolve to back him in the 2024 Republican primary, rank-and-file Republican voters, party officials and political analysts told Reuters.
"They've done nothing but harass this guy," said Gregg Hough, chair of the Republican party in Belknap County, New Hampshire, predicting the prosecution will boost Trump support "to the moon" if it fails to deliver a convincing conviction.
Trump flagged the possibility of charges earlier this month and raised about $2 million off what he said was his imminent arrest. In a statement on Thursday, Trump called the indictment "Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," without providing evidence.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, described the Manhattan case as "silly" compared to the other probes hanging over Trump's campaign. Those include a special counsel investigating allegations he sought to overturn the 2020 election results, and prosecutors in Georgia examining his efforts to reverse his loss in the battleground state.
To win the party's nomination, Trump will likely have to broaden his support beyond the 25%-30% of the Republican electorate generally thought to be in his corner no matter what, especially if the field of Republican candidates narrows in the coming months. An indictment could make it difficult for him to broaden his appeal.
"For all the things for Trump to get indicted for, this is not on the top 20 list," said Feehery. "But it is a little bit of a scarlet letter for Trump that his opponents could use against him. Such an argument could be persuasive for independent voters."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said some Republicans could be swayed by the charges to back Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or another potential candidate without Trump's legal baggage, which has grown considerably since he left the White House in 2021.
"It’s not good for Trump, the question is how bad for Trump it is," said Sabato. "There could be multiple indictments ... it begins to add up to a major problem."
Trump's campaign has accused the Manhattan District Attorney, Democrat Alvin Bragg, of doing the bidding of the Democratic Party in an effort to stop his White House run. At a campaign rally in Waco, Texas on Saturday, Trump likened the criminal investigations against him to a "Stalinist Russia horror show."
People close to Trump have said his campaign would seek to frame the indictment as proof that all prosecutions - including his two impeachments in Congress - are unjustified attempts by the "Deep State" to undermine him and his supporters.
Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, said Republicans would view the Manhattan indictment as political, given that federal prosecutors reviewed the Daniels case in 2018 and decided not to charge Trump, although it is Justice Department policy not to indict a sitting president.
Trump has defied predictions of his demise numerous times since he launched his bid for the White House in 2015. Sometimes called "Teflon Don" for his record of skirting accountability, Trump once bragged that he could gun down someone in the middle of Manhattan and not face consequences.
Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite the emergence of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape in which he made vulgar comments about women. And in 2018, when he was president, he paid no apparent political price for the Stormy Daniels affair, even as his lawyer went to prison for arranging the payments and pointed the finger at Trump.
Trump remains the front-runner in the 2024 Republican field, with the support of 44% of Republicans in a March Reuters/Ipsos, ahead of DeSantis' 30% support.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, and Gram Slattery in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Daniel Wallis, Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)