In the face of his mounting legal troubles, former President Donald Trump has promised to stay the course on his 2024 run for the White House even if he’s charged with a crime. At least one expert says though there’s nothing legally stopping him from running again, an indictment with criminal charges could kill his chances at reelection.
According to Lonna Atkeson, director of Florida State University’s LeRoy Collins Institute, voters are often willing to look the other way or give candidates benefit of the doubt when it comes to allegations, rumors and other political attacks.
That changes when the cuffs come out.
“People make claims, but if there’s no indictment or arrest, those things don’t matter. In general, those sorts of stories, they’re just stories,” Atkeson said. “When you actually have an arrest, that’s different, and that signals something.”
Trump currently faces four investigations that come with potential charges: interfering with the transfer of power and his role during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol; the mishandling of classified documents found at his Florida home; interfering with the 2020 election results in Georgia; and a 2016 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to cover up an alleged affair.
And on Saturday, the former president used his social media platform Truth Social to call on his constituents to protest, under the belief that he would be indicted Tuesday by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. He was not.
Yes, Trump can run for president
Fortunately for Trump, there’s nothing in the Constitution prohibiting candidates with criminal records from holding office. In fact, an individual only has to be at least 35 years old and be a natural born citizen who has lived in the country for at least 14 years to hold the presidency. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment prevents a person from holding office — the presidency along with other government positions — if they’ve engaged in an insurrection or rebellion against the United States, but even that can be overcome with a two-thirds vote from Congress.
Delaney Marsco, who serves as senior legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, believes the lack of restrictions is a good thing.
“We want people to participate in the political system, we want people to have access to the policymaking world regardless of their socioeconomic status or their political affiliation,” Marsco said.
But Trump doesn’t just want to run, he wants to win.
But can he win?
Trump has been in politics and the national spotlight long enough to where voters have already formed a very strong opinion about him, according to Atkeson. But if he’s arrested and charged with even one of the handful of crimes he’s facing, he may very well lose enough voters to cost him in the primaries.
Voters care about who represents their party and its values. They also understand the power that elected officials wield while serving in public office.
“Voters aren’t dumb. Voters know that, they care about that, they understand what it means to hold public office and the responsibility that comes with that,” Marsco said.
Both Marsco and Atkeson said there’s no way to tell how big of an impact an indictment would have on Trump supporters. There are diehard fans that will likely never break ranks, but it’ll take more than the MAGA base to win in 2024.
A Gallup poll conducted in February showed 44% of respondents identified as independent voters, followed by 28% as Democrats and 27% as Republicans, meaning 2024 will largely be determined by swing voters.
Like Trump, the Republican Party, and its voters, don’t like to lose.
“They’re the out party right now. They don’t want to lose and the stakes are high,” Atkeson said. “There’s lots of other candidates in the Republican Party, so it could be used to leverage un-electability.”
Those other candidates include former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has already declared her run, as well as the expected announcements from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, among others. Atkeson said those candidates could benefit from the former president’s legal troubles.
“It’s one thing to make a claim, ‘I’m better than Trump,’ she explained. “It’s another to say ‘he’s not electable because he just got indicted.’ ”
Atkeson said she doesn’t expect Trump’s numbers to instantly drop if he’s arrested, instead she predicts his support would dwindle as the primaries inch closer. Voters may like and claim to support the former president right now, but change their minds when it comes time vote.
“As the invisible primary moves on and voters focus on the election itself and the nomination, they will be thinking about ‘Who represents me’ and ‘Who can win the primary, the general [election],’ ” Atkeson said.
An (almost) unprecedented situation
If Trump is indicted, he will become the second president in history to find himself behind bars, despite some claims arguing his arrest would be unprecedented.
William West, a former enslaved person, joined the Metropolitan Police after fighting in the Civil War, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In 1872, West was on the lookout for speeding horse-drawn carriages near Washington’s 13th and M streets when he jumped in front of a carriage racing towards him.
West quickly realized he had pulled over President Ulysses S. Grant and issued a warning. But the very next day, West caught the president speeding again and brought him in.
“I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation and I am nothing but a policeman, but duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest,” West said in 1872.
Grant was released on a $20 bond, which equates to just under $500 in 2023. The Memorial Fund reported that former MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said Grant had been issued three citations for speeding in his carriage during his time as president.
While the charges Trump faces are more serious than a routine traffic violation, he is not alone in having trouble with the law. But, if history is any guide, maybe he will take solace in the fact that the same year Grant was arrested for speeding, he was also elected to his second term as president.