Donald Trump is intent on leaning into his criminal cases to boost his 2024 campaign through the election next year, according to multiple people close to the former president, after he tested that strategy through multiple indictments and decided it gave him major political advantages.
The summer was devastating for Trump from a legal perspective, after he was charged with retaining national security documents in Florida as well as with seeking to overturn the 2020 election in Washington and in Georgia, the trials for which will occur before the election.
But politically speaking, the multiple indictments were unexpectedly beneficial for Trump insofar as they gave him an opportunity to test lines of attack that portrayed the prosecutions as politically motivated, the success of which could be measured through fundraising and polling gains.
The summer also gave Trump the confirmation that blurring the lines between the legal effort and political effort was perhaps his best overall strategy, in the gamble that he could use the criminal cases to benefit his campaign, which he could then use to benefit himself.
The conclusion has precipitated the joke internally that Trump is not so much running for the White House in 2024 but for his freedom, because were he to win, he could appoint an attorney general to dismiss any pending cases or potentially pardon himself if already convicted.
The strategy is working for the primary but it could be different for the general election, when independent voters could be put off by Trump’s constant haranguing about his own legal problems, especially if he is then convicted on things like retaining a classified US military plan to attack Iran.
The Trump campaign has not conclusively resolved the debate but is also keenly aware that the 2024 election – whether the Republican primary or the contest with Joe Biden – is bound to be overshadowed by Trump’s battles in the courts, no matter what the campaign does.
At the core of the current strategy is the recognition that after Trump was indicted, it was going to be the dominant theme of the 2024 race and he might as well lean into the prosecutions and spin them to his benefit.
The key message that Trump settled on is the false claim that he has pressed for years but his advisers found had renewed resonance: that the criminal cases were election interference, and they had been brought at the behest of Joe Biden, who was trying to prevent him from running.
In reality, the indictments are far from political. Trump was indicted in Washington because of his own efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election, and in the case of the classified documents prosecutors showed him deference until he defied a grand jury subpoena for their return.
But with Trump as the frontrunner to become the Republican nominee in a likely election against Biden, the crystallizing strategy is for Trump to make Biden the face of the indictments and cast him in television ads and on the debate stage as having prosecutors do his dirty work.
The move to focus on the fact that he is being criminally charged – disqualifying for any other candidate ever – is a uniquely Trump strategy, and one that his advisers say is possible only because Trump knows he is a ratings driver for cable TV news and can turn things into a circus.
That ability to create a carnival-like atmosphere, such as when he timed his surrender in Fulton county during prime time, has been shown to benefit Trump both by sucking up the oxygen for news coverage of any other candidate, as well as distracting from the embarrassment or severity of his legal troubles.
No one can say for certain whether Trump’s bet will pay off, and his advisers have cautioned him that slamming the indictments as partisan have been successful for now in large part because it has been aimed at his Maga base and he has dominated the news cycles over his Republican primary rivals.
The advisers told Trump that the indictments – and therefore the messaging – were always going to be successful for the primary because his base and most Republicans primary voters lack trust in mainstream media reporting of the charges and would take him at his word that he was innocent.
And once the primary voters backed him, the advisers told Trump, he would get the support and endorsements of the top congressional Republicans, who long ago decided they needed to keep courting the Trump vote to ensure they could avoid potentially bruising primaries.
The dilemma about exactly how to play the criminal cases for the 2024 national election came up recently when the federal judge overseeing the 2020 election interference case in Washington set the trial date for March, the day before Super Tuesday, when 15 states are scheduled to hold Republican primaries or caucuses.
Initially, some advisers were jubilant that Trump could be forced to appear in court as Super Tuesday got underway because it could look like political interference to prevent him from campaigning. But they later decided having legal coverage instead of his policies could be detrimental.