“They are using their power to destroy their number one political enemy. They are trying to crush him,” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump-world confidant and chair of the American Conservative Union, who warned of an era of overly-political prosecutions targeting prominent politicians. “And will there be reverberations from that that will benefit Trump from that, absolutely.”
The latest sign of Trump’s growing legal woes arrived this week, when reports broke that a special grand jury in Manhattan had convened to decide whether or not to indict the former president or executives at the Trump Organization over business and tax practices and the management of his international real estate portfolio. Privately, Trump and those close to him conceded that they are nervous about Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance reaching the culmination of his investigation. But publicly, they expect the former president to use his legal plight to gin up support from his base of supporters — and fuel chatter about a 2024 run.
“It’s the same kind of shit playbook — counter response, blame, attack the investigators, say ‘I did nothing wrong, I’m a businessman,’ you’ll hear that one a lot,” said one former adviser.
In a statement following news of the grand jury, Trump immediately proclaimed the investigation to be a “witch hunt,” accused it of being politically motivated and tried to hitch news of the grand jury to his plans to restart rallies and the release of a poll showing Republican support for another presidential run. To even the non-MAGA Republicans, it seemed predictable, cynical and likely effective.
“Trump has turned being a victim into an art form, and there’s no doubt he’d use an indictment as fuel to rally support,” said Brendan Buck, former aide to then-House Speaker Paul Ryan. “He’s convinced his supporters that the only crime he’s ever committed is fighting for them on behalf of elites, and when people believe that, you’re basically bulletproof.”
Trump and allies are anticipating the very real possibility that he or his business partners could be indicted. And one of the main reasons Trump is spooked is that Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer who knew the ins and outs of the company’s accounting books, has emerged as a central figure for the New York prosecutors and according to reports, has been pressured to flip against his boss.
Yet barring any significant new findings, people around Trump do not expect the investigation to have a negative impact on his immediate political future. Trump has been telling friends and aides he seriously plans to run again in 2024, and his team suspects that the legal drama may actually help him with Republican voters.
“At this point in the years-long Witch Hunt, Republican voters are numb to the continual partisan attacks,” said a person close to Trump. “If anything, these legal attacks help solidify the president’s political base.”
Allies of Trump have focused their ire on Letitia James, specifically. The New York attorney general campaigned on a promise to investigate Trump, whom she called an “illegitimate president.” And both Trump and his allies have lashed out at her, accusing her of abusing her office by predetermining investigative subjects.
“The Attorney General of New York literally campaigned on prosecuting Donald Trump even before she knew anything about me,” Trump said in one of his longer post-White House statements. “That is what these investigations are all about—a continuation of the greatest political Witch Hunt in the history of the United States. Working in conjunction with Washington, these Democrats want to silence and cancel millions of voters because they don’t want “Trump” to run again.”
People close to Trump say his recent musings to run in 2024 started before grand jury news. While Trump remains a powerful figure in the party, he misses the trappings and power of the White House, they say, especially following a sleepier spring among fellow retirees in Palm Beach, Florida.
“When he came down the escalator, the left went after him from the Russia hoax to impeachment, now we are still seeing it in New York City,” said former chief of staff Mark Meadows on Fox News. “The American people want him to run, and I believe he will run.”
In the lead up to the 2020 election, Trump used a similar argument to dismiss the legal and political investigations into him at that time. He denounced special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and his subsequent first impeachment as witch hunts and partisan congressional overreach. He demanded that lawmakers “investigate the investigators” and claimed he was the subject of a “Russia hoax.”
He also spoke about the legal benefits that he believed came with occupying office; that he was largely inoculated from prosecution and indictment so long as he served. That could very well compel him to seek office again, though advisers say that’s not his current thinking, and legal experts argue that he can’t escape state-based investigations by running for federal office. Instead, those who have followed Trump’s career closely believe he will use his current dilemma to gin up sympathy and anger among his legion of followers.
“One of the things that’s undoubtedly going to frustrate him about the two criminal investigations is he has very little direct leverage. He’s decamped from New York, he’s a resident of Florida, he’s widely loathed in New York City, and does not have popular support, and he doesn’t have any of the political or legal leverage to disrupt those investigations the way he disrupted Mueller,” said Tim O’Brien, Trump biographer and critic of the former president. “But the thing he did in the Mueller case is he went right to his supporters and the public and said this is a witch hunt.”
“He is well aware that his greatest traction is with his enthusiastic supporters, and I think he’ll go to them as a force to be reckoned with when anyone tries to put him under the whip.”
With reporting by Sam Stein