Trump’s indictment has barely made a ripple in 2024 presidential race

For the charges against Donald Trump to shake up the 2024 election, the DOJ needs to fix his actions within a larger plot, a University of Chicago expert writes. Did Trump intend to use state secrets to advance his family’s business interests abroad?

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Supporters of former US President Donald Trump gather at Trump Tower ahead of his indictment on June 13, 2023 in New York City.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather at Trump Tower before his indictment on June 13.

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Rarely does such astonishing political news have so little political effect.

Last week Donald Trump distinguished himself as the first president ever to be formally indicted by the Department of Justice. Arraigned earlier this week, Trump faces 37 federal charges associated with mishandling classified documents, obstructing justice and lying to the FBI. These charges come while Joe Biden, Trump’s competitor in the 2020 election, now sits in the White House and oversees the DOJ. And all signs point toward Biden and Trump squaring off once again in 2024.

Members of both parties recognize the gravity of these events. For Democrats, they serve as a shocking reminder of Trump’s deceit, corruption, chicanery and unfitness for office. For Republicans, meanwhile, they demonstrate the lengths to which Democrats will go to keep Trump out of power.

Amidst all the outrage, however, hardly anyone is changing their minds. Over the last week, the approval ratings of both politicians remain steady. Biden’s continue to linger in the low 40s, while 50% to 55% of Republicans continue to prefer Trump as their nominee. Both politicians, meanwhile, are using these events to raise money in their shared quest to serve a second term. Trump held a fundraiser on the same day as his arraignment. Biden heads out to California on a fundraising tour next week.

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Opinion

Rather than disrupt the early dynamics of the 2024 presidential elections, Trump’s indictment stabilized and accelerated them. The news reaffirmed the support of his core supporters and shrunk what little space exists for competitors to enter the race. According to a CBS poll, fully 80% of likely Republican voters said that Trump should be able to return to the White House even if convicted; and while a handful of Republicans admitted misgivings about his candidacy, more than twice as many insisted that the indictments changed their views “for the better.”

How can this be? How is it possible that something so anomalous and so outrageous is not turning our political world upside down? A good part of the answer, of course, has to do with the larger news cycle. These indictments are only the latest accusations leveled against a former president who was twice impeached; who is facing state charges for paying hush money to a porn actress in New York; whose involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection remains under federal investigation; and who is likely to face further charges in Georgia for election tampering.

The indictments also reaffirm what each party is already saying about the other. For Trump, they are only the latest chapter in a never-ending witch hunt, albeit one in which his main political opponent now is weaponizing the DOJ for his own political gain. And while Biden refuses to publicly comment on Trump’s legal woes, his supporters cast them as further evidence of Trump’s continuing threat to our national interests and democracy.

A final contributing factor concerns the contents of the indictments themselves. In its 44-page indictment, DOJ’s Special Counsel Jack Smith outlined, in rather shocking detail, Trump’s reckless storage of documents containing highly sensitive state secrets; his efforts to thwart the federal government’s repeated efforts to recover them; multiple instances of him cavalierly sharing the documents with people who lack any kind of government clearance; and his awareness that he was, in doing so, breaking the law.

Never, however, does the special counsel explain why Trump behaved this way. Never does it present evidence of a particular plan, intention, or motive.

As a matter of legal responsibility, the DOJ need not do so. There are plenty of reasons to bring charges without having sorted out exactly why Trump did what he did. His actions alone are reason enough to hold him to account.

But for these charges to shake up the 2024 election, they need to fix Trump’s actions within a larger plot. Did Trump intend to use state secrets to advance his family’s business interests abroad? To manipulate what foreign nations might say or do in the upcoming presidential election? As some kind of get-out-of jail card? The DOJ doesn’t say.

It’s possible, of course, that Trump had no real purpose in mind. The documents may have merely served as props for his ego and proof of his unending sense of entitlement. If true, though, then his actions merely reveal character traits that we already know — and with which his supporters have long made peace.

Over the last several years, political pundits have worried a great deal about the effects of misinformation and disinformation on our politics. The American electorate is supposedly roiling in a sea of lies, conspiracy theories, and fabrications. More startling still, though, may be the muted effect of very real, altogether unprecedented, and objectively alarming news — how a cannon ball shot by the federal government can slip into these present political waters without making the slightest splash.

William Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics and the Director of the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago. He is the coauthor, most recently, of Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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