The Debate Over a Trump Indictment Won’t Wait Till He’s Charged

With the Manhattan district attorney expected to indict former President Donald J. Trump soon (though there is no clear public indication of when), Republicans and conservative news outlets have already dug in against the move, while Democrats push back tepidly.

Republicans are by and large calling the case, which centers on a $130,000 hush money payment to a porn actress, a political attack with little legal merit. Many have leaped to a full-throated defense of Mr. Trump and condemnation of the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, without waiting to see the details of any indictment.

Democrats are treading more carefully: emphasizing that former presidents should be subject to the same laws and legal processes as everyone else, and condemning Mr. Trump’s efforts to agitate his supporters around what he says is his imminent arrest, but generally not going so far as to endorse the indictment itself.

Some analysts in the media, for their part, are raising questions about the wisdom of pursuing this case — or at least of pursuing it first. Mr. Trump is the subject of multiple criminal investigations, and some commentators, while making clear that they would like to see him indicted, are arguing that the Manhattan case is not the strongest one.

Indicting the expected indictment

‘An example of pursuing a political agenda’

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a likely candidate against Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination whose initial silence drew criticism from Republicans, weighed in on Monday by accusing Mr. Bragg of prioritizing the case against Mr. Trump over other criminal cases. He said, “If you have a prosecutor who is ignoring crimes happening every single day in his jurisdiction, and he chooses to go back many, many years ago to try to use something about porn star hush money payments, that’s an example of pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.”

He joined other prominent Republicans, like Senator J.D. Vance and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, seeking to discredit Mr. Bragg’s investigation by linking him to the businessman and Democratic donor George Soros — a common right-wing attack that is often used as an antisemitic dog whistle. Mr. Bragg received indirect financial support from Mr. Soros during his 2021 campaign.

‘Abusing his office’

The House speaker, Mr. McCarthy, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Bragg was “abusing his office to target President Trump” and that House Republicans would “investigate any use of federal funds” by the Manhattan district attorney.

The Looming Indictment of Donald Trump

‘Building sympathy for the former president’

Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he had spoken with people who weren’t “big Trump supporters” but felt Mr. Trump was being attacked. “Not just the media, but really a lot of the Democrats have misplayed this, in terms of building sympathy for the former president,” he said. “And it does drastically change the paradigm as we go into the ’24 election.”

Questioning the strategy

‘Yes, we know, in America no one is above the law’

“But prosecutors use their discretion every day not to bring charges for any number of reasons,” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote on Sunday. The editorial asserted that Republicans’ belief that an indictment would be political was itself a reason not to bring one: “A wise prosecutor must consider the potential harm to confidence in the rule of law in bringing a prosecution that at least half the country will deem political. A charge against a former president or current candidate must be for serious offenses with indisputable evidence.”

The Journal wrote on Sunday that if Mr. Bragg proceeded as expected, he would “indict a former president for the first time in American history based on the weakest of charges,” “subject the country to a trial that would be a media circus for the ages,” and run “the risk that a single juror could block a guilty verdict and validate Mr. Trump’s claim that this is a political prosecution.”

‘The first case against Trump is … this?’

The headline on New York magazine’s Intelligencer newsletter questioned the decision to pursue charges in this case first, among the various investigations involving Mr. Trump.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

“The prospective prosecution is being described among liberal observers as ‘the least significant and the weakest one facing Trump,’ ‘the hardest to prove’ among ‘all the legal cases Trump faces,’ one with ‘manifold’ legal and evidentiary problems,” wrote Ankush Khardori.

‘It could threaten every other investigation against him’

“If Trump successfully defends himself against an indictment for his role in the payment to Daniels, we can predict he will use it as vindication that any and all charges brought against him are merely so-called witch hunts,” wrote Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, in an opinion essay published by MSNBC.

Ms. Levinson argued that “Trump’s ceaseless gloating” if he won the case could “have a cascade effect, not only emboldening Trump’s false claims that he has done nothing wrong, but also making other prosecutors skittish about charging Trump in other cases.”

Encouraging a ‘wait and see’ approach

‘This is the law operating as it should’

Many prominent Democrats have focused less on the potential indictment itself and more on Mr. Trump’s response to it, which included calling on his supporters to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” — an echo of his exhortations before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, condemned that, saying on ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday that there was no reason to protest because “this is the law operating as it should.”

Ms. Warren also defended Mr. Bragg’s discretion.

“No one is above the law — not even the former president of the United States,” she said. “And if there has been an investigation, that investigation should be allowed to go forward appropriately. If it’s time to bring indictments, then they’ll bring indictments. That’s how our legal system works.”

‘There are certainly risks involved here’

Senator Mark Kelly, Democrat of Arizona, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that it was “very important for the Manhattan D.A. to look into this thoroughly” and that “nobody in our nation is or should be above the law.” But he nonetheless expressed some unease.

“I would hope that, if they brought charges, that they have a strong case, because this is — as you said, it’s unprecedented,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And there are certainly risks involved here.”

‘Don’t freak out quite yet’

Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary whose MSNBC show debuted over the weekend, acknowledged some analysts’ assessment that indicting Mr. Trump could help his presidential campaign, but urged her fellow Democrats not to take that as a given.

“Yes, it’s safe to bet that Trump will try to weaponize this for political gain,” Ms. Psaki wrote on Saturday. “We have watched him do that plenty of times before.”

“But,” she added, “he’s never been indicted before. And we’ve already seen some recent cracks in the armor.”

Ms. Psaki continued: “Are there scenarios where Trump runs away with the Republican nomination? Of course. But could some voters draw the line if he faces real criminal charges? We just don’t know yet.” Finally, she said, “In the meantime, do yourself a favor … and don’t freak out quite yet.”

Pushing for full steam ahead

Not a ‘minor infraction’

One elected Democrat to specifically defend an indictment was Representative Ritchie Torres of New York, who wrote on Twitter on Monday: “Republicans insist that Trump’s crime is too minor to justify criminal prosecution. If you think falsifying business records in order to conceal a $130k illegal campaign contribution is a minor infraction, then I have a few Trump golf courses to sell you.”

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