HomePoliticsHow Trump Benefits From an Indictment Effect

How Trump Benefits From an Indictment Effect

Early on March 18, former President Donald Trump hit send on a social media post saying he would be “arrested on Tuesday of next week.”

“Protest,” he wrote on his Truth Social website. “Take our nation back!”

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Trump’s prediction was based on media reports, according to his lawyers, and his timing was off by two weeks.

Yet the statement set in motion events that profoundly altered the course of the Republican nominating contest. Donors sent checks. Fox News changed its tune. The party apparatus rushed to defend Trump. And the polls went up — and up.

These series of falling dominoes — call it the indictment effect — can be measured in ways that reveal much about the state of the Republican Party. To examine the phenomenon, The New York Times reviewed national and early state polls, interviewed Republican primary voters, examined federal campaign finance records, analyzed hundreds of party emails, scrutinized the shifts in conservative media coverage and talked to operatives inside the campaigns of Trump’s rivals.

The analysis highlights Trump’s dominance over the party, revealing the years of conditioning of millions of Republican voters who view Trump’s legal troubles as a proxy attack on them. And it displays an upside-down reality where criminal charges act as political assets — at least for the purpose of winning the Republican nomination.

“The rally around the flag is not a new phenomenon in American politics, but Donald Trump has certainly taken it to a new level,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who works for Trump’s super political action committee. “With Trump the rally around the flag happens to be about him personally.”

‘A Solar Eclipse-like Event’

For nearly two years, Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s broader empire had been weaning itself off Trump and elevating Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. As a New York Post headline celebrating his 20-point reelection win put it, DeSantis was “DeFUTURE” of the Republican Party.

DeSantis’ office closely coordinated with Fox producers to create flattering segments, according to emails obtained by The Tampa Bay Times. His achievements in Florida — especially his handling of COVID — were heralded as heroic acts of governance in the face of leftist opposition. Fox programming centered on themes and villains that DeSantis had built his brand on fighting: transgender athletes, Dr. Anthony Fauci and all things “woke.”

But after Trump’s first indictment, the priorities of the conservative movement and its media ecosystem shifted.

Influential conservative talk radio hosts rallied behind Trump. Even commentators who liked DeSantis, such as Mark Levin, took on the indictments as a personal mission that seemed to override other priorities. Another right-wing personality, Glenn Beck, who used to warn about the dangers of Trump, went on Tucker Carlson’s now-canceled show on Fox, put on a MAGA hat and declared that “the America that we knew, the fundamental transformation that started in 2008, is finished.”

Programming across conservative media centered on the idea that Trump was the victim of a justice system hijacked by Democrats. DeSantis’ fight against “wokeness” became passé — a matter of small stakes when set against Trump’s potential incarceration.

Trump’s indictments didn’t just occupy a 24-hour news cycle; the cases consumed whole weeks on both mainstream and conservative media, each following a pattern. There was the week of rumors before the indictments, and then indictment day, arraignment day and the post-arraignment analysis.

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Trump and his team have deliberately sought to maximize live news coverage of his criminal arraignments. They treat court appearances exactly as they would campaign events — choreographing visuals down to minute details and working with all the networks, including those Trump has pilloried as “fake news,” such as CNN.

The Trump team has invited reporters into its motorcade, whose black SUVs have been tracked live on television news. The campaign has briefed the networks ahead of time so that cameras can be set up at multiple locations on arraignment days to get the best shots — including along the motorcade route and as the Trump plane lands and takes off.

“What did the other candidates do today? Do we know? We know where Trump was,” Steven Cheung, Trump’s spokesperson, said the evening of the Florida arraignment. “There’s no oxygen for the other candidates.”

For the most recent arraignment in Washington, the Trump team ensured a camera was stationed within the motorcade — shooting out of the windshield to give network audiences a ride-along effect as the former president was driven from the courthouse to Reagan National Airport. On arraignment days, Trump advisers were thrilled as every news screen fixed on the former president — with some aides posting photos of the wall-to-wall coverage on social media.

It quickly became apparent to DeSantis and other rivals that during the indictment fever they would be responding to the news on Trump’s terms.

An adviser to one of Trump’s rivals, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Trump’s legal travails had repeatedly forced his candidate’s campaign to reschedule policy announcements and redo its calendar, describing the indictments as “a solar eclipse-like event.”

Commanding the Party Apparatus

It wasn’t just Trump’s rivals and his acolytes on Capitol Hill who snapped to attention after his criminal charges — it was the entire official structure of the Republican Party.

Before Trump announced his 2024 candidacy, the official party committees had routinely spammed voters with Trump-centric fundraising emails. Just the mention of his name in a subject line drew attention, and they had become dependent on him to goose small-dollar donations.

But when Trump announced he was running for president on Nov. 15, top officials at the Republican National Committee knew they needed to stop pumping out the Trump emails. They wanted to avoid giving the appearance that they were playing favorites in the GOP primary and therefore risk compromising their official neutrality. An analysis of the past 10 months of fundraising emails from an online archive shows that between Trump’s announcement Nov. 15 and late March the RNC sent only one email that mentioned Trump in its subject line.

But on March 29, when rumors were swirling that the former president would soon be indicted in New York City, the RNC ended its moratorium.

Over the next week alone, the RNC sent at least a dozen emails to Republican voters expressing outrage over the indictment of Trump — and channeling that anger into requests for personal data and donations. Shortly after midnight, in the early hours of April 4, the RNC emailed its list a massive digital countdown clock to “President Trump arrest” — displaying hours, minutes and seconds.

RNC emails included polls asking people to vote on whether Trump was innocent or guilty. And the party sent out a message from its chair, Ronna McDaniel, with the subject line “Dark times for America” — urging people to donate money to “stand with the Republican Party at this critical moment in our nation’s history.”

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McDaniel has appeared frequently on Fox to defend the former president. So have two House leaders, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, who have at times seemed to compete to see who can defend Trump more vigorously.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm for the Senate, followed the same playbook as the RNC. And while these tactics were self-interested — online fundraisers ride whatever dominates the news cycle, and nothing sells like Trump’s indictments — the messages of support from the official party apparatus also sent a clear signal. This was Trump’s party. Not defending him was not an option.

An Online Gold Mine

The former president had been struggling to raise campaign cash until it became clear, in mid-March, that he would face criminal charges in New York.

That first indictment poured rocket fuel into Trump’s online fundraising machine. Trump had been averaging $129,000 raised per day in 2023 until that point, according to federal records. In the next three weeks he averaged more than $778,000 per day.

Put another way: Trump had raised a little over $12 million in the first 88 days of the year. It took him just seven days after his first indictment to raise a similar amount — $13 million.

His second indictment brought diminishing financial returns, and no public records are available that cover his third. But Trump’s online fundraising has been meaningfully strengthened by his criminal charges. A stunning 40% of every dollar Trump raised online in the first six months of this year was collected in the two one-week periods around his first indictments.

While Trump’s aides have boasted about the indictments’ effects on their fundraising, they are also keenly aware that the former president’s legal problems have not been net profitable. The PAC that pays the legal bills is almost broke. The campaign account has not funded his legal expenses.

Regardless of the overall balance sheet, the sudden surge in online fundraising was a leading indicator of the Republican electorate’s fervor for Trump and its reflexive impulse to defend him. Trump’s advisers are aware the indictments may be less helpful to him politically in a general election than in a primary. But for now, they see the criminal charges as helping him against other Republicans.

‘Making my Support Even Stronger’

Trump gained substantial support in primary polling around his indictment in the spring — increasing about 9 percentage points in polling averages in the weeks following his announcement on Truth Social that he expected to be arrested.

“The indictments are honestly making my support even stronger,” said Sheri Hardy Candeni, a 51-year-old Trump supporter from California, Kentucky. “They’ve weaponized our entire government against people like us. Every time he gets indicted, it’s driving tens of thousands more of us to the polls.”

More than half of Republicans — including 77% of self-identified MAGA Republicans — said the indictments and investigations against Trump were an attack on people like them, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll taken soon after the most recent indictment. And 86% of Republicans felt the indictments were an attempt to stop Trump from campaigning.

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For some Republicans, the mere fact that Democrats were investigating and charging Trump with crimes was added reason to support him. And the fact that Trump’s rivals have not been indicted was a cause of suspicion.

“Any time you have a pack of dogs chasing you down and you’re willing to stand firm and fight, you’re going to get my vote,” said Mallory Butler, 39, who lives in Polk County, Florida, and supports Trump. “DeSantis doesn’t have a pack of dogs hunting him down, and that tells me that somebody’s probably backing him, or he’s in somebody’s pocket at this point. And Trump doesn’t have that.”

DeSantis’ advisers have gone back and forth over how to defend Trump enough to satisfy the Republican base but not so much as to render him a supplicant. There were sharp internal debates among DeSantis’ senior staff about whether the governor should promise to pardon Trump if he were elected as president.

DeSantis initially refused to go that far — only saying that he would consider a pardon. But more recently he has strongly hinted that he would. And because of the intense Republican anger around Trump’s first indictment, the DeSantis team fast-tracked the rollout of its policy to confront a “weaponized” Justice Department, according to a person close to the campaign.

DeSantis’ communications director, Andrew Romeo, responded that the Florida governor was “the only candidate in this race who can beat Joe Biden and end the weaponization of the federal government once and for all.”

And Cheung, Trump’s communications director, described the indictments as a “battle between good and evil.” He accused DeSantis of taking “the cowardly path” and predicted voters would “not forget his disloyalty.”

Trump’s rise in the polls could be tied to multiple dynamics beyond his indictments. The initial spike in support predated his first indictment, and the polling increases coincided with a spate of negative headlines and stumbles from DeSantis.

Trump’s second indictment led to a much smaller polling bump, and it remains too early to estimate the polling effect of his third and most recent indictment.

For many of Trump’s supporters, the details of each successive indictment have blended together into a generic attack on the former president, creating something of a background noise they are largely tuning out.

“The indictments have no impact on my support for Trump,” said Sean Roh, 39, who described himself as a reluctant Trump supporter from Linwood, Washington. “In the past I’d followed them in the news, but now I don’t care to read the details.”

Seven in 10 Republican primary voters said Republicans needed to stand behind Trump in the face of investigations, including nearly half of voters who are planning to support a candidate other than the former president, according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, which was taken before the most recent indictment. And more than 80% of Republicans said the charges in the most recent indictment were politically motivated, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll.

The indictment cycle could begin anew as soon as this week, when Trump could face a fourth indictment in Georgia.

On the morning of his most recent arraignment, the former president joked about what it would take for him to secure victory.

“I need,” he said, “one more indictment to ensure my election!”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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