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Trump’s Charges Bring Doubts, Hopes and Uncertainty in Both Parties
To some Republicans and Democrats, the charges appeared flimsy and less consequential than many had hoped. To others, the case had the potential to reverberate politically.In the coming months, former President Donald J. Trump will have to balance his presidential campaign with court proceedings and possibly a trial in New York.Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York TimesIn

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To some Republicans and Democrats, the charges appeared flimsy and less consequential than many had hoped. To others, the case had the potential to reverberate politically.

International News Former President Donald J. Trump amid supporters at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday after being arraigned in New York, with a bright light directly above and behind his head.
In the coming months, former President Donald J. Trump will have to balance his presidential campaign with court proceedings and possibly a trial in New York.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In an ordinary presidential-primary season, the indictment of a front-runner over hush money paid to a porn star would, at the least, be an opening for rivals to attack. But a day after the arraignment of former President Donald J. Trump on 34 felony counts, one thing was clear: This will not be an ordinary political season.

The failure of Mr. Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination to go on offense — indeed, their willingness to defend him — underscored the centrality of the former president in the G.O.P. His opponents appeared to be using the same playbook that a crowded field of White House hopefuls ran in 2016, laying back, absorbing Mr. Trump’s blows and hoping external factors would take him down.

“The sad thing is that so many people accept it as part of the character and conduct of the former president,” Asa Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas who on Sunday announced that he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, said of the charges. “That’s not something from a candidate perspective that I’m wanting to dwell on.”

Still, the political landscape remains uncertain as Mr. Trump’s legal peril grows.

To some Republican and Democratic leaders, including former and current elected officials, strategists and others, the charges appeared to be flimsy, a hodgepodge of bookkeeping accusations that felt far less consequential than many had hoped. To others in both parties, the charges and attendant spectacle were troubling and had the potential to reverberate and hurt the former president politically.


Mr. Trump leaving Trump Tower on Tuesday on his way to his arraignment. His official and potential rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination have mostly defended him against the charges. Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

At the very least, the charges will have to be answered in a court of law, extending a tawdry tale of extramarital affairs into a courtroom for a party that once considered itself the home of family values.

Mr. Trump might rail against the Manhattan district attorney who is leading the prosecution, Alvin L. Bragg, and the judge who will preside, but the court proceedings and possibly a trial will unfold in a potentially damaging manner as a Republican race for the White House runs alongside them.

“It’s still serious,” said former Representative Reid J. Ribble of Wisconsin, a Republican critic of Mr. Trump who has doubts about the case. “Who wants to be charged with any crime? Most normal Americans will never be charged with a misdemeanor their entire life. To be charged with 30 of them? I mean, it’s shocking, and for somebody who you want to have as a leader in the country, it’s a disqualifier for me.”

Mr. Trump’s arraignment on charges that he falsified business records to cover up payments to the porn star, Stormy Daniels, certainly did make history. Mr. Trump is now the first former president to face criminal charges — and he does so amid his third run for the White House.

But the moment did not yield a rush to abandon him by many voters or party leaders. On Friday, the day after the news of Mr. Trump’s indictment, Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster and Trump critic, assembled a focus group of voters who had cast ballots for him in 2016 and 2020 to ask how the charges were affecting their next vote.

Every one of the voters said they would cast a ballot again for the former president, the first unanimous verdict since she began assembling such groups for the 2024 election cycle.

On Wednesday, former Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, who is exploring a run for the Republican nomination, told a Fox News reporter in New Hampshire: “Sometimes we have to put all our politics aside and say, ‘Is this the right thing to do for the country?’ This sure doesn’t look right.”


“The sad thing is that so many people accept it as part of the character and conduct of the former president,” former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican running for president, said of the nature of the charges against Mr. Trump. Credit…Win McNamee/Getty Images

Even conservative evangelical leaders who might be expected to look askance at the extramarital dalliances contained in the allegations were supportive, continuing a pattern of overlooking Mr. Trump’s personal conduct that dates back most prominently to their response to the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016. Ms. Daniels said she had sex with Mr. Trump in California in 2006, as his wife, Melania Trump, was home caring for their baby, Barron, in New York.

“This has already been litigated by evangelicals in 2016 and 2020,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a Texas megachurch, who delivered an opening prayer at Mr. Trump’s campaign rally in Waco last month. “And I don’t think evangelicals want to re-litigate it.”

Asked whether he believed Mr. Trump’s denials about having a sexual encounter with Ms. Daniels, Mr. Jeffress said that was not his judgment to make: “That’s really between him, Stormy Daniels and God.”

If anything, Mr. Trump’s rivals now see a moment of peak power for him that they hope will dissipate.

“Trump just got a big old shot in the arm with people who don’t like where we are and don’t trust the government,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who this year helped start the presidential campaign of Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “They are frightened of the unfairness that seems to be coming from the judiciary right now.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is widely expected to be Mr. Trump’s biggest threat for the Republican presidential nomination, was silent on the subject on Wednesday, though he did win the endorsement of a conservative House Republican, Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Mr. Massie said in a text message that he had planned to make the endorsement “without regard to the arraignment, and decided not to let Alvin Bragg get in the way.”

Ms. Haley, a former South Carolina governor who was the second major candidate to declare for the Republican nomination, also kept her head down. Mr. Dawson said Ms. Haley and others would bring up the charges at some point, but not at a moment when conservative voters were rallying around the former president.

“There’s going to be a contest with real players eventually,” Mr. Dawson said. “Certainly, it’s Trump’s to lose right now.”

The worry, even among some Trump skeptics in the G.O.P., was that charges brought by a grand jury in Manhattan would only inflame the distrust of voters, some of whom had been drifting away from the former president. Others questioned the ultimate political impact in the primary and noted that Mr. Trump could face more serious legal troubles to come — but said that for now, the moment gave his message to Republicans a new opening.

“It feeds into Donald Trump’s whole theme that the Democrats are out to get him at any cost, and will stretch any law and come up with any novel legal theory to do so,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. He added, “It plays right into his hands.”

Democrats expressed frustration bordering on contempt.

David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the charges against Mr. Trump might not have been as sweeping as some of the other cases still pending against the former president. But Mr. Pepper argued that any other candidate or political figure who was accused of engaging in the same activities would be under the same microscope.

“Is it as problematic as Jan. 6 or what happened at Mar-a-Lago? No,” Mr. Pepper said, referring to federal investigations into Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t investigate it.”


Supporters gathered on Tuesday at the top of the bridge that leads to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s resort in Florida, and waited for his remarks after returning from New York. Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Other Democrats were sharper in their criticism.

“I won’t use the word ‘criminal’ until after he’s convicted, but he’s a morally bankrupt liar, and he’s been that for a while,” State Senator Sharif Street, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said of Mr. Trump.

But other Democrats echoed Republicans who said the Stormy Daniels episode seemed stale after so many years, and trivial compared with more pressing kitchen-table issues. And some expressed skepticism that the charges unveiled Tuesday would change many minds.

“It would be wonderful if those that worship Trump started to understand how much of a bad president he was and how much of a bad person he is,” said Raymond Buckley, the longtime chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “I’m not betting on that.”

Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, suggested that the events in Manhattan were not top of mind for his constituents.

“Hopefully we’re talking about actual issues and the future of the country and things kind of at that level rather than worrying about” court proceedings, Mr. Pocan said. “I don’t think that’s probably what the average person is going to be talking about. But it certainly gives them an idea of who Donald Trump is as a person and as a candidate.”

Mr. Trump’s critics within the G.O.P. said his Republican rivals were again hoping that outside factors would trip him up without their having to raise a word of protest and risk alienating his core supporters. There is no more reason to believe that will work this time around, said Ms. Longwell, the Republican pollster.

A spate of polling released Wednesday showed a one-on-one contest between Mr. Trump and President Biden at a dead heat. A Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 54 percent of Republicans believed the indictment would help Mr. Trump secure the presidency, even as 58 percent of Republicans said the charges that the former president paid hush money to cover up an affair were believable.

“The concern is that Trump will get all the oxygen, which allows him to be the nominee,” Ms. Longwell said.