If, as expected, a Manhattan grand jury follows through and indicts Donald Trump, he’d become the first former U.S. president ever to face criminal charges.
That fact would be sufficiently unprecedented on its own. But there’s another one waiting for the history books: President Joe Biden would likely become the first presidential candidate whose main rival is challenging him from underneath the dark cloud of a criminal proceeding.
Ahead of the release of potential charges—which stem from allegations that Trump illegally paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 through his business to remain quiet about an alleged affair—many have speculated over how the ex-president would navigate the legal morass while trying to win a second term in the White House in 2024.
What’s less explored is how Biden and the Democratic Party would navigate that terrain once the incumbent president announces his re-election campaign, which is also expected soon.
If Biden and Trump are destined for a rematch—the likeliest scenario, according to polls—Democratic operatives largely agree that the ex-president’s criminal case could be a leading factor that shapes the contest.
Despite some perhaps wishful GOP prognosticating that Bragg’s move could actually boost Trump’s re-election hopes, Democrats see it as yet another development that alienates the ex-president from normal voters beyond the hardcore MAGA base.
Even knowing that a Trump mugshot could exist someday soon, for instance, already has some operatives dreaming about leveraging that image in 2024 attack ads.
But aside from that, Democrats are just beginning to game out how, exactly, they would handle Trump’s criminal proceedings in the context of another campaign against Trump.
“Once voters see a scarlet ‘C’ on their jackets, do you then need to remind people of that, or not?” asked Jesse Ferguson, who was a senior adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “It’s a question to be answered later.”
For now, there’s agreement that Biden and his White House team should not touch the indictment with a 130,000-foot pole to avoid politicizing the proceedings. So far, they haven’t and, broadly, there is very little appetite in any other Democratic circle to do so, either.
When asked in recent days about developments from Manhattan, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said, “We do not comment on ongoing investigations.”
“I expect the president and his team will not go anywhere near this anytime soon,” said Josh Schwerin, a former top strategist at Priorities USA, the largest Democratic outside super PAC for presidential races.
“Trump wants to make this a political argument and not a legal argument; having the president and his team weigh in helps him do that,” he said.
The White House declined to comment further on the Manhattan probe.
While it’s still early, some veteran operatives in the party are not sure yet if the Biden campaign and key allies will end up having to engage much with the case—particularly because it could be the first, and perhaps least serious, of several others Trump may face in the near future.
“The contrast between a moral man and a criminal maniac is a strong contrast for the campaign, but how many more indictments and how many more crimes will be uncovered between now and 2024 is unknown,” said Ferguson.
As the election and Trump’s criminal proceedings develop, however, some Democrats believe it will probably become increasingly untenable for Biden, and the party at large, to remain silent.
Schwerin argued that Democrats would eventually need to speak up, particularly given how much of the GOP apparatus has aggressively rallied to delegitimize Bragg’s probe.
“We can’t just rely on news coverage of the facts winning an argument when we’re seeing a full-court press from the entire Republican Party, including Trump’s opponents,” he said, referencing his would-be primary rivals’ undermining of Bragg’s case. “There has to be pushback.”
Certainly, there is no small amount of déjà vu at play for Democrats. The party has spent the better part of eight years grappling over how much to proactively center Trump’s array of norm-shattering scandals, statements, and blunders—and how much to trust that enough voters would understand those things to be disqualifying simply after consuming the news.
Some in the party do not believe that the Manhattan case—centered on years-old allegations of hush money payments—connects to a broader, compelling case Democrats might make against Trump in 2024. The allegations were already a focus in Democratic-led congressional hearings in 2019 and are a well-established aspect of Trump’s established persona.
When it comes to other legal actions Trump might face, it’s a different story. In Fulton County, Georgia, prosecutors are focused on his efforts to subvert the 2020 election outcome in that state. Federally, the Department of Justice has a special counsel overseeing a probe into Trump’s broader actions related to 2020 and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
For Democrats and for Biden, who framed his first campaign as a bid to restore the “soul of the nation” and has actively denounced Trump’s election denialism and fomenting of Jan. 6, those criminal proceedings could be far more relevant in making a fresh case against a second term for the Republican.
Even if the Democratic Party’s enduring base of anti-Trump #Resisters—some of whom have PACs and media presences that run ads and content—would likely make hay out of every twist and turn of the Manhattan proceeding, national players probably would not, even if the case remains active heading into 2024.
“You can see Democrats running substantive ads on protecting democracy; you can’t see serious Democrats running ads on hush money to Stormy Daniels,” Schwerin said, though he added that it may be hard for admakers to resist using a Trump mugshot, which would be released after the ex-president appears for an arraignment in Manhattan.
“The mugshot might be there… you might see a series of news clips of Donald Trump getting arrested, that could happen at some point,” he said. “But that’s different than litigating the facts of the case.”
What does unite Democrats, however, is skepticism of the idea that the hush money indictment might somehow help Trump.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has beat that drum in recent days, telling a crowd in South Carolina that Bragg “has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today.”
“An indictment is good for Donald Trump in the same way that the tragedy in Waco was good for David Koresh,” quipped Ferguson. “It kept his followers really fired up.”
Trump is scheduled to speak in Waco this weekend, while an indictment could come at any hour now.
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