The arraignment of former President Trump is the biggest story in the political world — and it hasn’t even happened yet.
There was intense media coverage on Monday as Trump’s motorcade left Mar-a-Lago bound for a private jet to New York, where he arrived mid-afternoon. He will officially become the first president in history to face criminal charges when he is arraigned on Tuesday.
The indictment against Trump is expected to be unsealed on Tuesday, too, which will finally make concrete key elements of a story that has been subject to wild swings of speculation.
The indictment’s details will have enormous political complications for Trump and his rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination.
The first and most obvious issue is just how strong the case laid out by prosecutors, led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), turns out to be.
It will be big news if an unsealed indictment contains significant new details or charges that were not expected — both for the former president and for the numerous Republicans who have lined up to defend him.
“This indictment is going to read terribly — and you want to be out there defending that?” said former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a GOP moderate and Trump critic.
Dent expressed bewilderment that many of the Trump’s rivals have sprung to his defense since news of the indictment became public.
Declared candidate Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has said that Bragg appears to be motivated by “revenge.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has complained that the process has been “un-American.” Former Vice President Pence has called it “a political prosecution” and “an outrage.”
Dent told this column: “Saying he is a victim without having read this thing is wrong. You’re supposed to draw a contrast with him. You can’t have a guy at the top of the ticket who is under indictment — and If I was running against him, I would say that.”
That said, an indictment that merely laid out charges that have already been predicted, and no more, could spell trouble for Bragg — and a silver lining for Trump.
Even some Democrats privately worry that the case taken by the Manhattan D.A. is less compelling than the ongoing probes into three other matters: the events around the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, the discovery of documents bearing classified markings at Mar-a-Lago, and the attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia.
Furthermore, the most likely charge against Trump, regarding falsification of business records, is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, unless it can be shown to be linked to some other crime.
The most likely connection in this instance will be to allegations that the now-infamous $130,000 payment to adult actress Stormy Daniels in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign was a de facto campaign expenditure that was illegally concealed.
Perhaps Bragg will reveal compelling new evidence in that regard.
But it’s worth noting that a broadly comparable case against John Edwards, the former Democratic senator who ran for president in 2004 and 2008, failed — in part because the defense argued that payments to a woman with whom he had an affair could have been made to limit personal embarrassment rather than to further his 2008 White House bid.
The American public seems to have an unusually complicated view of the case.
Two major polls in recent days, one from ABC News/Ipsos and the other from CNN/SSRS, indicated that many Americans see the prosecution both as a welcome development and as politically motivated.
In the CNN poll, 60 percent of Americans approved of the indictment while 52 percent said that politics played a “major role” in it.
In the ABC News poll, 45 percent of Americans said Trump should have been charged with a crime, compared to 32 percent who didn’t think so — yet a 47 percent plurality also said the charges were politically motivated.
There is no question that the case has inflamed Trump’s supporters — and got them to open their wallets one more time. Trump aide Jason Miller claimed late Monday that Trump’s campaign had raised more than $8 million since news of the indictment broke.
But for Trump, who lost the 2020 election by more than seven million votes, simply holding onto the loyalty of his existing supporters isn’t enough.
More to the point, further inflammatory tweets or speeches from the former president could backfire. Trump warned late last month of “potential death & destruction” if he were charged.
There has been some speculation that the judge in the case could consider a gag order for the former president or at least admonish him to avoid any comments that would come close to contempt of court.
But any attempt to restrain Trump — a declared presidential candidate since November — would be a firestorm in and of itself.
For the moment, authorities in New York are stiffening security measures.
At a Monday news conference, New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) warned against “violence or vandalism of any kind.” Police have been preparing for demonstrations for weeks.
President Biden has avoided making any direct comment on the specifics of the case so far.
Asked Monday whether he was concerned about unrest, Biden told a reporter, “No, I have faith in the New York Police Department.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.