With Trump arrest imminent, U.S. enters uncharted territory
Indictment of former U.S. president triggers political, social, legal unknowns
We'll get to the political reverberations of this earth-shaking event, unprecedented across 46 presidencies throughout the 247-year life of the American nation.
This singular event is the impending arrest of Donald Trump, and the country will have ample time to dissect its potential consequences at the ballot box.
There are more pressing concerns.
A police officer confided recently that he and colleagues had been talking for months about how to protect their local courthouse if Trump ever faced charges in their city.
It's no longer hypothetical: Trump will become the first former president charged with a crime, a Manhattan prosecutor has confirmed; he's expected to surrender Tuesday for an arraignment.
But before we get to an election, or even a trial, there's the more immediate issue troubling those aforementioned police officers. Can this unfold without anyone getting hurt?
Spectre of violence looms
Trump plans to keep running and has begun using apocalyptic language to describe the 2024 election: "This is the final battle," Trump has said in recent speeches, declaring that if he loses the country will be over.
The accused has a history of stirring up a mob. And if he's been tempered by the experience of Jan. 6, he hasn't demonstrated it one bit.
In just the last few days, Trump has warned of potential death and destruction if he's charged. He's called for protests, as is his constitutional right.
He also posted a photo of himself holding a baseball bat beside the prosecutor's picture and said it was accidental.
He held his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco, Texas, site of a notorious deadly standoff pitting a cult against federal law enforcement.
He began that rally with a tribute to the Jan. 6 mob, holding his hand over his heart, listening to a song recorded by convicts from the Capitol attack.
He later said he feels like Elvis because that song topped the charts. He's talking about pardons for some of the Jan. 6 convicts, if he's re-elected.
"Insane," is how one Fox News personality, Brian Kilmeade, described Trump's decision to highlight the insurrection at last weekend's rally.
Fox News, however, overwhelmingly defended Trump on Thursday, with Sean Hannity's prime-time show carrying a screen title labelling the case a witch hunt.
A researcher who studies political violence, Robert Pape, has been conducting surveys at the University of Chicago and has polled Americans about this.
His latest one, this January, found that six per cent of respondents believe use of force is justified in response to a possible Trump arrest. That amounts to nearly 20 million people, millions of whom have access to firearms.
So let's mark the potential social fallout as: To be determined.
Could there be economic effects, too?
Let's see if Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene gains momentum with her demand to make defunding other, federal criminal investigations into Trump a condition for raising the U.S. debt ceiling, to avoid a catastrophic U.S. debt default later this year.
Political fallout could go either way
Now, onto the next election.
You'll hear vigorous arguments about whether this hurts — or helps — Trump's comeback bid. What's clear is he's allowed to keep running, under the U.S. Constitution. And that he's unquestionably the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
In fact, someone physically incarcerated could run for president, and someone already has: socialist Eugene Debs won nearly a million votes in 1920 while locked up on sedition charges for opposing the First World War.
"I wouldn't even think about leaving [the race]," Trump recently told reporters.
President Trump won't back down. He's going to keep on fighting to Save America <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MAGA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MAGA</a><a href="https://t.co/e0u1KiUWSl">pic.twitter.com/e0u1KiUWSl</a>—@DonaldJTrumpJr
Here's the case that this will damage Trump politically. Republicans want to regain the White House; 41 per cent in a recent CNN poll prioritized nominating a candidate who could win over nominating someone they preferred.
Just look at what happened after last year's midterms. Republicans fared worse than expected, and many, including Rupert Murdoch-owned media, blamed Trump. Trump's numbers took an instant dip in the aftermath.
So watch what upcoming surveys say: If it turns out that getting arrested hurts his standing with general-election voters, expect his intra-party rivals to wield that un-electability argument against him.
Here's the counter-argument: That Trump is untouchable among Republican voters. That the police search at Mar-A-Lago last year had no effect.
He's already recovered from last fall's dip, with Fox News, Morning Consult and other polls showing his national primary lead doubling in recent weeks.
And he'll now sit at the centre of the political universe, sucking up all the oxygen into his orbit as other Republican candidates seek attention.
"If they bring this case, I believe this will catapult him into the White House," Trump's lawyer, Joe Tacopina, told MSNBC a few weeks ago.
Even that aforementioned CNN survey showed that, to 59 per cent of Republicans, nominating a candidate they agree with is more important than nominating a likely winner.
Witness the circling of the wagons in Congress. Trump's allies on three different congressional committees have fired off a letter demanding that New York City prosecutor Alvin Bragg testify before them, insisting that his office preserve its records.
Witness the unloading on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Trump's potential 2024 rival tried playing it both ways: he recently slammed the case as a miscarriage of justice, but also poked fun at Trump, joking that he was ill-qualified to comment on hush-money payments to a porn star.
Trump's team pulled no punches in their ensuing onslaught against him. DeSantis hasn't even entered the race yet and he's been battered by Trump in daily diatribes that coincide with Trump building on his polling lead.
By Thursday night, the Florida governor was unreservedly singing from the Trumpian hymn book. Amid news of the indictment, DeSantis condemned the case and declared he'd play no role in helping extradite Trump to New York State.
The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. <br><br>It is un-American. <br><br>The Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal misconduct. Yet, now he is…—@GovRonDeSantis
The truth about the state of the 2024 race is that the polling has been laughably inconsistent at this early stage. In recent months, national surveys among Republican primary voters have veered wildly from DeSantis leading by two points, to Trump leading by 30.
There are other investigations into Trump, including a tax case in New York, a probe in Atlanta related to election interference, and at least two federal investigations.
'Zombie' case leads to first indictment
Some commentators have lamented that the first, precedent-smashing indictment should come from the case they deem the most frivolous: secret payments to cover up an affair.
Yet in some ways this case traces the arc of Trump's public life, from tabloid star; to smasher of norms and rules; to the politician appealing to his adoring crowd.
This case began with a sexual tryst with a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, who says he had her spank his bottom with a magazine that pictured him on the cover.
Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, was later convicted of violating federal election-finance law, by using shell companies to hide a $130,000 US payment to keep Daniels quiet.
A book by a former member of the New York City prosecution team said this came to be known as a "zombie" case.
"Because it was alive, and then it was dead. And now," Mark Pomerantz wrote, describing a twist in the case several years ago, "it had sprung back to life."
Pomerantz wrote that, in his view, Trump wasn't indicted along with Cohen years ago for two reasons.
First, he said, federal prosecutors were wary of charging a sitting president against the guidelines set by the federal Justice Department; in addition, he said, federal prosecutors would have refused to use Cohen as a witness unless he agreed to confess and face charges for any and all his additional crimes.
He described subsequent efforts to prosecute Trump under a state crime of falsifying records, but that falsification charge required that the records be connected to an underlying crime; he then described how his team began probing the Stormy Daniels payments as possible money-laundering being the potential crime.
Finally, he described a dustup with Bragg. He said Bragg showed disinterest in the case when he became the local prosecutor in 2021.
Now, two years later, here we are. The specific charges have not been released yet, and won't be until Trump formally appears in court early next week.
Here's one safe prediction: That Manhattan courthouse will be heavily guarded.
With files from The Associated Press