Former president Donald Trump’s arrest in New York on Tuesday will largely be remembered as a historic moment — the first American president to be charged with a felony. But his criminal arraignment has jolted American politics in the here and now, from Trump’s personal standing to the 2024 presidential contest as a whole.
It was a day that saw hordes of journalists and small crowds of Trump supporters and opponents, but very little of Trump in public. He was whisked away in a motorcade from Trump Tower to a lower Manhattan courthouse and entered a side door. After nearly an hour inside the courtroom, he left, straight to the airport to fly directly back to his Florida home. News helicopters broadcast his movements live. Trump said nothing to the cameras but spoke the words “not guilty” inside the courtroom.
This is hardly Trump’s first time in court. He has been entangled in the legal system in one way or another for most of his adult life. Indeed, the charges in New York are just one of three active criminal investigations he faces. Those involve allegations of election interference in Georgia during the 2020 election, allegations that he incited the crowd ahead of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building, and whether he intentionally took classified material with him when he lost reelection and left the White House.
But the political ramifications of those cases are for another day. Here are some takeaways from Trump’s highly anticipated appearance in court on Tuesday.
Trump is once again controlling the news cycle
Until the past few weeks, Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign was struggling. He barely campaigned, he wasn’t raising significant money, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was ascendant and Trump was barred from Fox News Channel, a serious handicap for any Republican candidate.
Put a different way, Trump was being increasingly ignored and the world was moving on. But not anymore.
It has been 17 days since Trump announced that he expected to be arrested in New York. In the days since, Trump has been the most talked-about person in America.
His ability to command and control a news cycle helped make him president in 2016, and he is no doubt appreciative that he is back on front pages around the world.
Consider this: Trump’s posts on Truth Social are now all over television.
Trump has a foil
Another thing that Trump lacked in his current presidential campaign was a main political opponent. DeSantis, after all, has largely shied away from engaging with Trump and has not officially entered the race.
The strategy for many of Trump’s potential 2024 opponents was to delay any announcements for president as long as possible to deny him an opponent. For his part, President Biden has also chosen not to engage much with Trump, even refusing to say his name for a long while.
But in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor who oversaw the case, Trump has a new foil. Not just Bragg, but the broader political left, hell-bent on using the justice system to harm him politically.
Consider this: moments after Trump surrendered to authorities, his campaign began selling T-shirts with his picture and the words “not guilty.”
The GOP is galvanized . . . for now
As in 2016, if several candidates are vying for the Republican nomination, the winner needs only a plurality of the vote. These arrests and charges have already divided the Republican Party into two groups: with Trump or against him, which essentially puts all of his 2024 rivals into the same bucket.
Since Trump announced that he would be arrested, his lead over the Republican field has grown. And since Thursday, when news broke that the New York grand jury had voted to indict him, his campaign claims to have raised close to $8 million. One poll taken by Yahoo! after Thursday’s news found that Trump leads DeSantis by 26 points, up from an 8-point lead in a poll taken two weeks earlier. It’s Trump’s largest lead in that poll this year.
However, how this plays with Republican donors and the party’s establishment might be different from what everyday Republicans feel at this moment.
As is often true in politics, the future is unknown with widely different potential outcomes
There is any number of ways this could go for Trump. One outcome: he could go to jail. Another outcome: he could be found not guilty and use that acquittal as a springboard to win the White House again.
The stakes are that high. There are countless other variables and outcomes, of course, and Trump could become so bogged down in legal matters that he drops his campaign, or voters could finally decide to move on.
If anything can be learned from Trump’s extensive legal past, it seems likely that his lawyers will drag out every piece of the proceedings. The 34 charges he faces in New York are very complicated and based on an untested legal theory that New York’s normal statute of limitations do not apply because Trump allegedly aided in a federal campaign finance felony. (One similar case in New York was allowed to move forward, but it was tied to a campaign finance felony under New York laws.)
Expect Trump’s lawyers to prolong the process by challenging whether the statute of limitations had expired, whether they could move the trial to more Republican-friendly Staten Island, demand the judge who is assigned the case to recuse himself, or call for a dismissal because Bragg campaigned for the office on a pledge to charge Trump, among other reasons.
Trump may not even return to the New York courtroom until December and the proceedings will likely stretch into the next year.
For now, the larger point is that American politics is the Trump show again, something that many vowed should never happen again. That’s good for Trump, for now.