As Trump pleads not guilty, Catholic experts weigh in on impact of indictment on 2024 campaign

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appeared in court in New York City April 4, 2023, with members of his legal team for an arraignment on charges stemming from his indictment by a Manhattan grand jury following a probe into hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels. (OSV News Photo by Andrew Kelly, pool via Reuters)

By Kate Scanlon

Former President Donald Trump was arraigned April 4, pleading not guilty to 34 felony counts related to falsifying business records associated with his alleged role in paying hush money to an adult film actress in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, among other alleged misconduct.

Trump, who is in the midst of his third bid for the White House and is currently leading polls for the 2024 GOP presidential primary, appeared in a courtroom in Lower Manhattan and was charged under state law with a criminal attempted cover-up of efforts to illegally influence the 2016 election. He is charged with falsifying records of payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels with the intent to silence claims from Daniels that could have harmed his candidacy. Daniels has said she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump, which he has denied.

Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame who critically observes the modern American presidency, said that “the word ‘unprecedented’ is becoming the most common word associated with Donald Trump and his political career.”

“He’s now the first president or former president to face criminal charges,” Schmuhl said.

Stephen Schneck, a Catholic activist and retired CUA professor, said that “for more than 200 years, the country has been spared the spectacle of indicting a president.

“Given its potentially destabilizing effect on our political system, we should be very grateful that we have not seen this in the past. And, we should not now be sanguine about the dangers involved in establishing a new precedent,” said Schneck, who served as the national co-chair of Catholics for Biden in 2020.

Trump, who did not address the media that gathered in New York City to cover his arraignment, returned to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, where he delivered an address the same evening claiming he was the victim of political persecution.

“This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election, and it should be dropped immediately,” Trump said.

James Patterson, chair of the politics department at Ave Maria University, said that an acceptance of Trump’s tawdry behavior among the GOP base marks a significant change from previous decades, when Republican voters sought candidates whom they felt championed family values. But an indictment in the hush-money case may make charges stemming from other investigations into Trump’s efforts to thwart the 2020 election results more plausible, and multiple, lengthy, time-consuming legal battles may constitute a “death by a thousand lawsuits.”

“So the issue you run into with all that is, how many of these plates can Trump keep spinning while he runs a campaign?” Patterson said.

Schmuhl said Trump “will try to turn his indictment into a broader and continuing narrative of victimhood, a refrain of his political messaging since 2015.”

“His base of loyalists will rally to his side, but it’s doubtful criminal charges are helpful to widen his support,” Schmuhl said.

Schneck said Trump may politically benefit from the indictment “in the short run, although it may hurt his election chances in the long run.”

“In the short run, the indictment puts him back above the fold on the front page of public awareness,” Schneck said. “This in effect will squeeze out media and voter attention for other GOP presidential aspirants. The indictment also enables him to play the victim card to the right wing base in the Republican Party which, as a group, has proven to be highly motivated by perceptions of victimhood. So, it all helps Trump with the GOP nomination. However, I believe that Trump’s response to the indictment, evident already in his remarks over the last few days, will further radicalize his rhetoric — which in the long run will hurt him with swing voters in the general election.”

Asked about arguments that criminal prosecutions of former presidents will become more commonplace now that Trump has been indicted, Patterson said that does not have to become a new normal.

“It’s not something that’s inevitable, or at least it shouldn’t be, because this kind of approach to former executives is a sign of a bad civic virtue in a country,” Patterson said.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released March 29, prior to news of the indictment, found a majority of Americans think criminal charges should disqualify Trump from running for president again.

Trump also faces separate legal challenges, including investigations into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump has made repeated claims of systemic election fraud, claiming without evidence the election was stolen from him.

Those investigations appeared very much on the former president’s mind, with Trump claiming during his televised remarks April 4 that a scrutinized phone call with Georgia election officials including Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump pressured them to “find” more than 11,000 votes for him was “perfect.”

Schmuhl said any or all of the investigations could complicate Trump’s attempt to return to the White House, noting he is “being investigated for other illegal activities” outside New York.

“At a certain point, all of these potential criminal proceedings will impede him from actively campaigning,” Schmuhl said. “That could be critical to his winning the Republican nomination.”

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