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4 things to think about when it comes to the politics of Trump's indictment

Former President Donald Trump visits with campaign volunteers at the Grimes Community Complex Park, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Former President Donald Trump visits with campaign volunteers at the Grimes Community Complex Park, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

That a former president is facing federal charges would be a big deal unto itself. It has never happened in this country before.

But add to that, charges dropping while said former president is running — and leading — in the primary to get his old job back, and you have something truly unusual and extraordinary.

Only in Donald Trump's America.

How this ends is anyone's guess, but here are four things to think about to help try and make sense of it all:

1. Not much has affected Trump's trajectory to this point. It's hard to see why this time would be any different — at least in the short term

We can't know for certain how these charges will affect Trump's chances at the GOP nomination.

What we can point to though is what's happened already. Amazingly, remember, this isn't Trump's first indictment.

After the one in New York in March, stemming from those hush-money payments to women he'd allegedly had affairs with, and the FBI search of his Florida home in this very documents case, his hand only got stronger for the nomination.

And, even after Trump was found liable for battery and defamation in a civil lawsuit brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who was awarded millions, it still didn't change anything. In fact, Trump was greeted with rowdy applause when he mocked Carroll during a town hall on CNN the very next day.

2. Trump has spent years undermining the Justice Department and the FBI, and that's helped insulate him with his base

Witch hunts. Deep State. Politically motivated investigations. We've all heard the talking points. Most of it is bunk, but it has stuck with Republicans. Because it's stuck, it's insulated Trump to an extent.

That's partially why so many Republican elected officials felt comfortable coming out following the indictment and lashing out at the Justice Department and even falsely alleging that President Biden had something to do with this.

That's just not how the Justice Department works. But Trump has been able to sow distrust of once-revered institutions with the help of conservative media — and that's led the country to the point where he could be both impeached and indicted twice and still hold a firm grip on about athird or more of the GOP base.

3. Watch his Republican rivals. Do they start to push the message harder that Trump is too weak a candidate to take on Biden?

Some GOP candidates have been openly critical of Trump.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson put out a statement after the indictment saying that Trump has become a distraction and should end his campaign.

Before this all came out, Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, said of his former boss that "anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States."

Probably the most hotly critical of Trump has been former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He said during his kickoff event in New Hampshire that Trump is "obsessed with the mirror," "never admits a mistake," "never admits a fault and always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right."

It's a role Christie relishes — and it's a clear voice that's been missing from the GOP primary. But realistically, the Republican audience for the Hutchinsons and Pences and Christies is pretty small at this point.

Christie and Pence were quiet Thursday night, though, and most of the field not only declined to criticize Trump, but went after the Justice Department. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and a host of congressional Republicans claimed the DOJ has been "weaponized" against Trump and complained of a double standard.

"The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society," DeSantis tweeted. "We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary [Clinton] or Hunter [Biden]? The DeSantis administration will bring accountability to the DOJ, excise political bias and end weaponization once and for all."

Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur, who's also running, went so far as to say that on day one of his presidency, he would pardon Trump.

At the same time, there is a salient argument to be made, that is only just starting to really gain traction with major GOP candidates, that Trump is a weak general-election candidate, who has cost Republicans elections.

DeSantis is the principal alternative to Trump right now and has started to make the point that Trump is constitutionally limited by the 22nd Amendment to only be able to serve four more years in office.

With the crowded field, if they all turn their attention to Trump and make some of these arguments forcefully, then it's possible some "Maybe Trumpers" could start to peel away, especially if the details of the indictment wind up being damaging.

But so far, they've largely shown a reluctance to going after the man they are aiming to beat out for the nomination, largely because they fear his base of supporters.

4. This 2024 election is going to be really weird

It really is remarkable. There is a candidate, a former president who is now under a pair of indictments, with trials stretching over months — one in New York is slated for next year.

And these aren't even the only potential charges Trump is facing. There's still the case in Georgia about Trump's scheme to overturn the election results there and yet another federal criminal investigation into his role in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

If Trump is convicted and faces any jail time, he could still run for president and appear on the ballot — even though if he's convicted of a felony, he wouldn't be able to vote in Florida. (He can thank DeSantis for his hard-line stance on convicted felons and voting.)

This is a very strange place for the country to be in, and that's not even considering that Trump and Biden would be the two oldest general-election candidates in U.S. history and are both unpopular.

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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.