Should Donald Trump become the first former president to be indicted, it would be a watershed moment in American history.
But the matter, involving a payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, is among the least serious of the allegations for which Trump is currently under investigation. And it seems positively minor compared to what’s happening in Georgia, where Trump is accused of trying to pressure officials to overturn an election.
Yet the implications of Trump being arrested would not only affect the legal and political scenes. It could have ramifications around the world in terms of norms for prosecuting political leaders. (If even the United States is charging a former president and current presidential candidate, is it so weird for Peru and France and South Africa to do the same?)
But whether he was charged by the Manhattan district attorney on Tuesday (he wasn’t, though Trump claimed he would be) or another day, the former president may have already won this round politically.
Trump’s rambling, all caps, run-on social media post over the weekend was not just newsworthy because he announced he’d be arrested. It was also the first stroke of political brilliance from Trump’s team in a very long time.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Trump put the Manhattan prosecutor in a box
There were three elements of Trump’s post. First, he would be arrested. Second, that it would happen on Tuesday. Third, that his supporters should show up in person to protest.
It remains unclear whether his supporters would show up in Manhattan in big numbers. (A protest on Monday organized by New York Young Republicans reportedly had more reporters there than Trump supporters.)
Trump’s framing and timeline, however, made it seem as if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was wavering if he didn’t charge Trump on Tuesday. (Even if Bragg brings charges the following day or next week.) At the same time, if Bragg does charge him, then Trump can claim, as he always does, it’s a political sideshow — just like “Russia, Russia, Russia.” (Of course, given what Trump’s supporters did on Jan. 6, it could be much worse than just a sideshow.)
2. All of a sudden the talking heads are all saying how weak the New York case is (and not saying much about Georgia)
As he has most of his life, Trump is facing a number of civil and criminal legal matters. A former magazine columnist alleges he raped her in the 1990s and has filed a defamation lawsuit against him. Civil proceedings are moving forward against him and his company in New York. There are federal investigations into his actions ahead of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the mishandling of classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. And there’s the Georgia situation, where Trump has been accused of interfering with an election.
But since Trump’s all-caps post over the weekend, the conversation isn’t about Georgia (where an indictment could also happen any minute now) but about a much-less-severe alleged tax offense in New York.
To recap: At issue in New York is an alleged $130,000 in hush money paid to Daniels to keep quiet about an affair with Trump. The payment was made during the 2016 presidential campaign, though Trump denies an affair ever happened or that he bought Daniels’ silence for political reasons.
But illegal campaign finance donations are a federal matter. The issue here is Trump allegedly funneled the money to his attorney, who then set up a shell corporation to pay Daniels. When Trump filed taxes he claimed the payment to Daniels was for legal help and took a deduction. Prosecutors are examining whether it was or not.
Normally the statute of limitations would have long passed for charges on this. However, New York law allows for it to be brought up later if it happened in conjunction with a different crime. And since Trump’s one-time attorney, Michael Cohen, was found guilty of violating federal campaign finance laws when he wrote the check to Daniels, this case was allowed to proceed.
If the discussion nationally is about charging a former president for a tax deduction in the wrong column (and not about, say, trying to overturn an election), Trump must be happy. And that’s what America is discussing right now — because of Trump’s post.
3. Trump has found his first real political momentum in years
Before this weekend, Trump was viewed as a has-been. He’s essentially lost three elections in a row (the 2018 midterms, his own reelection in 2020, and the 2022 midterm elections). His poll numbers were consistently falling in the past year. Despite announcing his presidential run in November, he has only made a handful of appearances.
Members of Trump’s own political base are checking out Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to be the 2024 “Trump lane” candidate, instead of Trump himself.
But for only the second time since he was president, the political conversation is nothing but Trump. (The other time was when the FBI raided his home last year.) Thanks to a simple social media post, Trump was able to galvanize his base again, force potential Republican rivals to line up one way or another, and make House Republicans scramble to have his back.
Once again, Trump is commanding attention. He has momentum and everyone’s watching to see what’ll happen next. It’s just the way he likes it.