Prepare yourselves, everyone, as we’re going to break the golden rule. That’s right, we’re going to speculate about Donald Trump’s political future. I know we all swore this off in the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, but let’s face it, Trump’s legal fate is arguably the largest unknown variable of the 2024 Presidential race.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Trump was arrested in New York City earlier this month on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, stemming from alleged hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. This, of course, is also only one of several separate criminal investigations into the 45th President.
The Other Trump Investigations
In Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis opened an inquiry into Trump’s efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election in the Peach State. You likely remember the phone call Trump made to Georgia’s Secretary of State in which he pleaded “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” Members of the grand jury assembled by Willis have heavily hinted that they voted to indict Trump, so just such an announcement may well come at any moment.
Then there’s the pair of federal investigations being handled by Special Counsel Jack Smith. The first concerns Donald Trump’s involvement in the efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection. This particular probe was opened after the wealth of evidence uncovered by the January 6th Congressional Committee.
Additionally, Jack Smith is also tasked with overseeing the investigation of Trump’s handling of classified documents. The former President, apparently under the belief that he owned all his Administration’s public documents, shipped several boxes of records to his home at Mar-A-Lago. Furthermore, even after the FBI inquired into the missing documents, Trump held on to several papers that were only discovered once the FBI searched his home last August.
It’s worth pointing out that, despite speculation to the contrary, that raid of Mar-A-Lago had no appreciable effect on the 2024 GOP primary polls. Conversely, since the March 30th vote to indict Trump, his lead expanded from 18.3% to 23.7% in the FiveThirtyEight average and 15.8% to 28.7% in the RealClearPolitics average.
Impact on the 2024 Republican Primary Debates
That battle for the Republican nomination is set to go up another gear this summer, as reports indicate that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will finally jump into the race after the Florida legislature adjourns in May. In fact, there are already rumors that DeSantis will launch his campaign on July 4th. Shortly thereafter in August, Fox News is scheduled to host the first primary debate of the season.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will actually participate in said debate, as he’s boycotted such events before. In January 2016, he skipped a Fox News debate in Iowa due to an ongoing feud with the network and moderator Megyn Kelly. Then, in October 2020, Trump balked when the Commission on Presidential Debates proposed a virtual debate after Trump’s COVID diagnosis.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine Trump could resist the Republican primary debates for long. These forums, with their crowded stages and raucous audiences, were a major part of his success back in 2015-2016. Simply put, no one else could command the spotlight as effectively as he did.
Would that still be the case? After all, it’s been more than eight years (March 10, 2016) since Trump last participated in one of these primary debates, so he may not be as sharp as he was then. That also prompts the question of whether any of his challengers would seriously seek to take Trump on in this setting.
During the 2016 debates several tried – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina – yet none of them really succeeded at denting Trump’s standing in the polls.
Of course, now his debate opponents would have much more ammunition. For instance, they could hit Trump for losing the 2020 election, January 6th or Stormy Daniels to name but a few.
On the other hand, Trump now has plenty of new material to use too. Take Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, who’ve both repeatedly struggled to differentiate themselves from the President they served. I’d imagine Trump would relish the opportunity to skewer them.
Then there’s DeSantis. Trump will undoubtedly be merciless against his most serious challenger, and you can bet he’ll frequently mention how pivotal his endorsement in the 2018 Gubernatorial primary was for DeSantis’ career.
Trump’s legal problems present DeSantis with an enticing counter-punch, but will he take it? It would take a talented debater and showman to one-up Trump in this setting, yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that DeSantis is neither.
Trump’s Trial and the Primary Calendar
As 2023 turns into 2024, Trump will be shuffling back and forth to New York City, since his next hearing is set for December 4th. Prosecutors are proposing to begin the trial in January 2024, while Trump’s defense team argues for a later date.
The timing here becomes critical as this trial will likely be commencing just as the Republican primaries begin. The Republican National Committee has yet to finalize their 2024 primary calendar, but FHQ is forecasting the Iowa Caucus for January 8th, the New Hampshire Primary for January 16th and the South Carolina Primary for January 27th.
So we’re faced with the very real prospect of a Donald Trump trial running concurrently with the Republican primaries. To say nothing of the possibility that Trump will also have to attend trials in Atlanta and/or Washington during this same timeframe.
One set date we do have is for the Republican National Convention, which will run from July 15th to 18th. Traditionally, the official nomination balloting is done on the second day, so the 2024 GOP nominee will be chosen on July 16th.
This obviously begs a whole host of questions: Will additional indictments and trials further rally Republicans behind Trump, or convince them that Trump is simply in too deep? What if Trump is convicted while he has a plurality, or even a majority, of delegates? Would these delegates seek to nominate someone else at the convention or instead double down on Trump?
Then there’s the question about how all of this would affect a general election rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, but that’s an article for another time. Suffice to say, the trial(s) of Donald Trump will remain one of the most consequential issues in the 2024 presidential campaign.