4 political questions after Trump's second arraignment on criminal charges
Former President Donald Trump appeared in court Tuesday to answer to 37 charges related to his handling of classified documents, marking the second time in 2023 he has been indicted.
Former President Trump appeared somber and quiet in a Miami courtroom, hands clasped and leaning back in his chair, at times, speaking aloud only to utter the words, "not guilty" to 37 federal counts stemming from his handling of classified documents.
Astoundingly, it was the second time in three months that Trump has been indicted. And that's not counting the $5 million civil judgment against him for sexual abuse at the end of April.
There are still two more criminal investigations looming, trials are coming, and Trump continues to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
We have some questions. Here are four about what's next and the politics of Trump's legal woes:
1. What will we see from Trump and his team going forward?
Trump and his team seem to find a certain comfort in chaos. They've been here before — heroes who aren't captured, the Access Hollywood tape, allegations galore, firing an FBI director, the Mueller investigation, two impeachments, top lieutenants who flipped on him or went to jail, election conspiracies and now two indictments and two more criminal investigations to go.
Most would be exhausted by continuing to be in the thick of it, but not Trump.
Instead, he's trying to make this an opportunity. He has so insulated himself with such a significant portion of the GOP base, he's banking on increasing his support in the Republican primary.
Immediately after court, for example, Trump took his motorcade to Versailles, a famed Cuban-American cafe in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. It was joyous. He prayed with those in attendance that communism wouldn't come to U.S. shores, and they sang happy birthday to him. (Today is his 77th birthday.)
It was a hint at the political power Trump retains in some conservative Latino communities, especially in Florida, a state that has moved more Republican in the Trump years.
He's been raising money off this, using an image of himself in a phony mugshot that's been posted on his social media site and emailed to supporters. (For the record: no mugshot was taken; he wasn't put in handcuffs; and only digital fingerprints were taken.)
Hours after his appearance in court, he rallied with donors, attending a campaign fundraiser in New Jersey. And after months of hammering his chief GOP rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his team put out an ad this week featuring Trump against Biden.
The idea is to bill Trump as already the presumptive Republican nominee, hoping to bury any thought of primary voters choosing someone else.
2. Will other Republicans vying for the nomination continue to let him slide?
But there are still six, seven months to go before the early nominating states have their say. And plenty of time for rivals to capitalize on Trump's legal woes.
If only they were.
Most Republicans running against him have been instead trying to walk a fine line — criticizing the Justice Department, while hoping the weight of the myriad charges against Trump prove too heavy.
That's a risky strategy. Only a few candidates have been direct in their criticism. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been tough critics from the start. Hutchinson said Trump should drop out. Christie, a former federal prosecutor, called the charges against him "devastating."
But they are largely in the minority of their party and have limited support.
Instead, DeSantis has claimed a DOJ double standard. That's been echoed by Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, who has lamented that the DOJ has been politicized. And that's from someone who said Trump put his life in danger during the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Tech entrepreneur and longshot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is going so far as to try and get other candidates to sign a pledge to pardon Trump if he's convicted. He showed up in Miami outside the courthouse and made the comments even as Trump supporters jeered at him, telling him to drop out of the race.
A notable shift did, however, come from Nikki Haley, the former Trump U.N. ambassador. After initially pointing the finger at the DOJ for "prosecutorial overreach" and accusing it of "vendetta politics," she changed her tune somewhat in an appearance Monday on Fox News.
"If this indictment is true, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security," Haley said (while also being critical of the DOJ).
But if candidates running against him and leaders on Capitol Hill are unwilling to forcefully and en masse speak out against Trump, why would anyone expect voters to suddenly change their tune?
Trump, the people they have voted for to represent them in Congress and right-wing media have conditioned them to believe all of these investigations are targeted, political and meritless — feeding Trump's grievance narrative.
3. How will this play with voters?
There is a strange political divergence taking place that's made possible by American information echo chambers.
Republicans, whose main source of information comes from conservative media, are saying they believe Trump. But the opposite is true for the rest of the country, including the group of voters who largely decide elections – independents who only lean toward one party or the other.
Swing voters view Trump as toxic, and Republican strategists and pollsters say he's a main reason why the party has underperformed in the last three election cycles.
That electability message hasn't filtered down to the rest of the party though.
"There's this phenomenon that happens every time Trump is impeached or indicted, and I call it the 'rally-round-Trump effect,' where voters sort of share his grievance," GOP pollster Sarah Longwell told NPR's Morning Editionon Monday.
Longwell is no Trump fan. But she hosts focus groups of Republican voters and is clear-eyed about Trump's hold on the party. She told Morning Edition that only two of the 50 voters she's talked to over several months said another indictment would make them deviate from Trump. Nineteen said it would endear them more to him.
In the limited polling since the indictment came out, that has been born out. A CBS/YouGov poll found that double the number of likely Republican primary voters said an indictment would change their view for the better (14%) than for the worse (7%). (Sixty-one percent said it wouldn't change their view of him.)
Republican Rep. Ken Buck on CNN said that if Trump is convicted, "I don't think, I certainly won't support a convicted felon for the White House."
That could certainly wind up being the case for many more Republicans, but, as of now, the GOP base just isn't there yet. The CBS poll found 80% of Republicans said Trump should still be able to be president even if he's convicted.
A minority of Republicans also said they believed it was a national security risk if Trump kept nuclear or military documents, but 80% of everyone else said it was serious. That just so clearly shows the fork in this political road.
An ABC/Ipsos poll showed that the percentage of people saying this indictment is serious went up from 52% to 61%, as compared to the charges in New York stemming from hush-money payments Trump made to allegedly cover up affairs he was having.
More than 6 in 10 independents said they think the charges were serious compared to slightly more than half after the New York indictment in April.
And there was some movement among Republicans, too — 38% described these charges as serious compared to just 21% in April.
But, importantly, there was no statistical change in how many thought Trump should or should not be charged. It's nearly identical after the New York charges — half say he should be charged, a third or slightly more say he should not.
And half also think the charges are politically motivated with independents split, which signals a big messaging fight ahead.
"The question is, is how many more indictments are going to come," Longwell asked, "and is it going to be a case where, because of all of Trump's legal troubles, he's the only person who ever gets talked about?"
4. What about those other investigations and how long could all this take?
The New York case is set to go to trial in March of next year, right smack dab in the middle of the busiest part of the primary season.
There's no telling yet when this documents case will go to trial, but it will, at the very least, stretch out over several months.
Plus, there are still two other criminal investigations — another federal one about Trump's role on and leading up to Jan. 6 and one in Georgia looking into Trump's pressure campaign to try and overturn the results of the presidential election in the state.
WSB-TV in Atlanta reported on Tuesday that members of the Fulton County, Ga. sheriff's office went to Miami to prepare for a potential indictment against Trump in their state. It's expected to be known whether charges in that case will be brought in a matter of weeks.
The clock is ticking on the GOP primary, but the justice system doesn't necessarily keep pace with politics.
It's on its own calendar, and Trump is going to do everything he can to slow things down.
Expect Trump's team to file lots of motions with the goal of dismissing the cases, but also to hold the ball out, hoping he wins the presidency again and potentially takes steps to shut down these cases and investigations.
One thing is clear — Tuesday's indictment isn't the end of this story.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.