Donald Trump is being criminally indicted in Manhattan. So now what?
If you’ve been following along with the actual developments, you’ve known that since leaving office Donald Trump has been on an incremental path to criminal indictment all along. All you’ve really had to do was tune out the folks who were baselessly yelling “He’ll never be indicted no matter what” as a method of trying to stoke outrage and bring attention to themselves. And now here we are, with the news last night that Trump has been informed that he’s indeed being criminally indicted in Manhattan as soon as next week. But now what?
Criminal indictment is both the end of something and the start of something. It’s the end of a criminal investigation. It’s the conclusion – by the prosecutor and a grand jury of average people – that there is enough evidence of a crime such that the target of the investigation must be put on trial for it.
When Trump is officially indicted, he’ll be instructed to surrender himself for processing and arraignment. It’s important to understand that once things leave the criminal investigation stage, where prosecutors are in charge, and enter the indictment stage, where judges are in charge, things become very different. Trump can’t just say “No I’m not surrendering myself” and cause some significant delay by fighting it in court. That stage is over. Trump is now the property of the court, so to speak. The judge assigned to his criminal case can (and will) have him immediately hauled in for arraignment if necessary. This alone will probably be enough to prompt Trump to simply surrender himself. After all, he can’t afford to alienate this judge, because he’ll now have to convince this judge to let him out on bail.
So let’s presume that Trump will surrender himself for processing voluntarily. This is still considered an arrest, whether he surrenders voluntarily and walks into a courtroom, or whether he’s taken away in handcuffs. There will understandably be a lot of focus as to whether Trump is in handcuffs, whether the handcuffs are fully tightened, and so on. But either way he’ll still be considered under arrest. And it will be a spectacle, given that Trump is both a former President of the United States and the most widely despised man in the United States.
Trump will argue to the judge that he should be released on his own recognizance because he has no criminal record and he’s never even been so much as indicted before. The Manhattan DA will likely ask for significant bail or house arrest instead. At this point there will be significant social media backlash against the DA for not “having the guts to just lock Trump up right now!” But it’ll be crucial for everyone to understand that it’s highly unlikely any judge would even consider granting pretrial incarceration, given that he has no record, and that these specific charges in New York (campaign finance fraud and such) are nonviolent in nature.
But what most folks don’t quite grasp until they’ve watched one of these kinds of trials start to unfold is that if you’re a prosecutor, you want a scoundrel like Trump out there, screwing things up for himself. Even if he’s granted bail, he’ll be placed under some stringent conditions. He may have to check in with his bail officer to get permission to travel. And all of his communications will surely be monitored. If he wants to start calling up witnesses in the case and trying to intimidate them, that’s fantastic! He’ll automatically get caught, and additional felony counts will be tacked on, and it’ll increase the odds he’s convicted and the length of his sentence.
So if Trump wants to get out on bail and start doing all the villainous things that he thinks he can get away with because he’s always previously gotten away with it, more power to him. He’s a 76 year old habitual career criminal who’s lost a step or three, and now he’ll be under bail conditions for the first time in his life. Good luck to him on not getting it revoked.
There’s also the reality that if Trump is out there running his mouth in “campaign” speeches and such, every word he says about this case can and will be used against him at trial. For that matter there’s a good chance that the judge overseeing the case will hit Trump pretty early on with a gag order to stop him from continuing to talk about the case. And if he repeatedly violates that gag order, that’s how he goes from being out on bail to being under house arrest and such.
Of course everyone wants to know about the trial date. That won’t be known until Trump gets in front of a judge for arraignment and the judge picks a trial date in accordance with what’s available on the New York court system’s calendar. If Trump thinks he’s going to be convicted, he may use certain parlor tricks to try to slightly delay the start of the trial. But there’s this perception that Trump has some kind of magic wand that’ll allow him to simply delay the trial as long as he likes – and that’s simply not how things work.
Will Trump’s trial happen before the end of 2023? We don’t know. Will Trump’s trial happen soon enough to derail his political ambitions? Keep in mind that the Iowa caucus is nearly a year from now. Will Trump’s trial happen before then? Again, we don’t know. But one thing we do know is that Trump’s indictment and upcoming trial will ensure that everything about his 2024 “campaign” will be centered around the fact that he’s going on criminal trial.
What does that mean? In spite of the longstanding assertion by the entire mainstream media that Trump’s “base” comprises the entire Republican primary voting base, the numbers have always made clear that this has never been true. In 2016, Trump got just 45% of the Republican primary vote across all states. And polling these days says that roughly half of Republican 2024 primary voters want someone other than Trump as their nominee.
There are a large number of Republican 2024 primary voters who are well outside Trump’s base. They like him because he’s a right winger like them, but they’ve never loved him. They’ll only be interested in nominating him in 2024 if they think that he has the best chance of winning the general election. And the fact that he’s going on criminal trial before the election is going to make them worry whether he’ll even be available for the general election. Those concerns will multiply when Trump’s Manhattan indictment is followed up by his Fulton County indictment and so on. What are the odds, they’ll wonder, of him skating on two criminal trials?
Of course there are a lot of moving parts here. We don’t yet know any of Trump’s trial dates. We don’t know how soon the Fulton County indictment will even drop. Nor do we know Jack Smith’s indictment timetable. But we do know that Trump’s 2024 “campaign” barely exists as it is, and that Trump himself seems to be barely there. It’s a given that these criminal indictments will cause the wheels of his already essentially imaginary 2024 campaign to start coming off.
But Trump won’t care about any of this, because his entire life is coming crashing down, and his 2024 “campaign” will be all he’s got left to cling to. It’s his big opportunity to convince himself that he’s somehow magically going to get away with it all. And it may end up being his lone remaining source for paying for his criminal defense team at trial. So he’ll cling to that 2024 “campaign” no matter how badly it falls apart.
Major right wing donors bankrolling every viable Republican candidate but Trump? Media coverage of Trump’s “campaign” that’s nothing but a 24/7 reminder that he’s facing multiple criminal trials? Polls showing that Republican primary voters increasingly want a nominee who’s not going to be in prison? None of it will likely prompt Trump to just give up and drop out. Why would he? His life will be over at that point, and if he drops out he’ll be admitting to himself that his life is over.
That’s the point where Trump will begin to do real damage to the 2024 Republican primary process. Here’s a guy who’s going to become increasingly non-viable, yet he’s going to retain just enough support from Republican primary voters that he’ll have to be included in the proceedings, so then what? Republican primary debates where Trump participates via Zoom while under house arrest? A Republican National Convention where a recently convicted Trump gets just enough delegates to keep the party from being able to nominate anyone? Who knows?
It’s really difficult to predict precisely how this is going to fall apart – only that it’s going to fall apart. Anyone with any sense of propriety, or any interest in the good of the party, or for that matter anyone with a sense of dignity, would just step aside and let the election cycle play out without him. But none of those words describe Donald Trump. He’s going to screw this up for the Republicans in ways that no one has seen before.
But that’s all down the road. More of that will start to come into focus later, as more of the pieces start to fall in line. For now what we know is that Donald Trump is being criminally indicted in New York as soon as next week, and he’s being criminally indicted in Fulton County not long after. He’ll be subjected to bail hearings, criminal trials, and everything that comes with it. The wheels will quickly start to fall off his imaginary campaign. He won’t care how much damage he does to his own party. And he’ll finally, after a lifetime of committing every crime in the book, face justice.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report