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Trump uses his indictment to unify GOP, even as his vulnerabilities are glaring

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25 in Waco, Texas.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25 in Waco, Texas.

Well, it actually happened. For the first time in U.S. history, a former president is facing criminal charges.

A grand jury in New York voted to indict former President Donald Trump on charges related to hush money payments made to allegedly cover up affairs Trump had, multiple sources close to Trump confirmed to NPR Thursday.

And the Trump GOP machine went right to work, rolling out a political playbook meant to insulate the former president with his base. It has appeared to work with them, but a unique divergence has emerged: While Trump has been strengthened with Republicans, his brand has become toxic with much of the rest of America.

"This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," Trump said in a statement Thursday night. He added that it was "an act of blatant Election Interference" that would "backfire" on Democrats, and he attacked the New York district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who brought the charges.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called the indictment an "unprecedented abuse of power."

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan put out a one-word statement that only said: "Outrageous."

Of course, the indictment brought against Trump isn't the result of something a prosecutor or judge did by fiat. A grand jury hears evidence from a prosecutor, then decides whether there's enough there to file charges against a suspect in a crime. And they did so.

If there's a conspiracy, then a jury of his peers is on it, too.

High stakes

Politically, an indictment is very different from a conviction, and there are questions about the actual case Bragg has.

All of this plays into the air of grievance Trump, a New York billionaire, has puffed into existence that he's used to propel his political fortunes. He's argued, successfully with his base of supporters, that the left has it out for him — and, in turn, them — that the system is rigged, and that this indictment and investigation in New York are nothing more than a politically motivated attempt to derail his presidential campaign.

Trump goes back to that oldie in his statement Thursday night:

"From the time I came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower, and even before I was sworn in as your President of the United States, the Radical Left Democrats - the enemy of the hard-working men and women of this Country - have been engaged in a Witch-Hunt to destroy the Make America Great Again movement."

It's all right off the greatest hits heard during the 2016 campaign, the Mueller Russia investigation, two impeachments, the FBI search of his Florida home where they recovered boxes of classified documents — and with relation to, not just this case, but the other three criminal investigations stemming from his conduct after the 2020 presidential election he lost and his role in the leadup to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It has appeared to work in his effort to win another GOP nomination and, to an extent, more broadly on the New York case.

While the latest NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll this week showed that a majority — 57% — said the criminal investigations into him are fair, 8 in 10 Republicans agree with Trump and call the investigations a "witch hunt," and 8 in 10 Republicans continue to have a favorable opinion of him.

To Trump's messaging, a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found that two-thirds of all respondents think that the charges in New York are not that serious and 6 in 10 agree that the investigation is politically motivated.

By most accounts, the other three criminal investigations — two federal and one out of Georgia — put Trump in far more potential peril than the New York case. But Bragg brought this case first, and the stakes are incredibly high not only for him personally, but also politically.

If Trump's convicted, it will be harder for him to claim the charges were frivolous and politically motivated. But you can imagine how Trump would boast of vindication if he's acquitted. He did so even when the Mueller investigation didn't exonerate him and after his second impeachment following Jan. 6 when a majority of senators — but not the two-thirds required for a conviction — found him guilty.

Primary vs. general election audience

Republicans have suffered because of the brand they appear so wedded to in three straight election cycles.

When Trump took office, the GOP had unified control of power in Washington. Trump was in the White House, and Republicans were in charge of both the House and Senate.

But soon thereafter that began to change. In 2018, the GOP lost dozens of House seats and Democrats wrested control of the lower chamber.

In 2020, Trump was ousted from office, losing his bid for reelection — by 7 million in the popular vote. Democrats won control of the Senate.

In the 2022 midterms, lots of Trump-backed and Trump-styled candidates lost key races in swing states and competitive districts, costing the GOP. Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate. And in the House, Republicans took control, but more narrowly than they had anticipated despite the history of a president's party usually incurring big losses in a first midterm.

Republicans have now lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. That's the worst streak for either party in their histories since the Republican Party's creation in the 19th century.

So even as Trump appears to be unifying this version of the Republican Party behind him through his claims of "witch hunts" and conspiracies, Americans more broadly have lined up against him — and the GOP — over and over these past several years.

That was evident this week in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that found 6 in 10 don't want Trump to be president again, including two-thirds of independents.

Yet, three-quarters of Republicans said they do want him to be president again. That's what's important when it comes to a presidential primary.

The only way that could change, according to Republican strategists — and there's no guarantee it would even work — is if other Republican candidates home in on Trump's political vulnerabilities, including that he can only serve four more years, paint his legal troubles as emblematic of the chaos and drama that surrounds Trump and make that argument clear to the GOP base.

But so far, none have really been willing to do that in any kind of sustained way, which has been the story of the Trump era.

Instead, his potential chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on Thursday was blasting the prosecutor in New York and tweetingthat "Florida will not assist in an extradition request... ."

There's no indication that's even a possibility. Trump's lawyers and the New York DA's office will likely simply agree on an arraignment date with Trump either virtually or in person.

But DeSantis' supportive tweet shows the hold Trump has on the GOP base. DeSantis has to walk a line not to offend the very pro-Trump GOP base, while Trump blasts DeSantis' record and personal characteristics daily.

Wanting to beat the king, but saying you really like the king a lot is a heck of a way to try and win a presidential nomination.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.