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Arresting Donald Trump Would Not Be Good for Donald Trump

Many are arguing that criminal charges would help the former president’s reelection campaign. They’re wrong.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sometime soon, perhaps as early as Tuesday, Donald Trump could be arrested. “WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” he wrote over the weekend on Truth Social, his bespoke social network. No one in the former president’s inner circle seems to know where Trump got his information, but the likelihood of an indictment has been growing for weeks. New York prosecutors invited him to testify earlier this month, and on Monday the NYPD began installing barricades outside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse.

The exact charges that Trump would face are still unclear, though they are believed to involve hush money paid in 2016 to Stormy Daniels, a porn star that he allegedly had an affair with in 2006. (Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, has already served a stint in prison relating to those payments.) These accusations, even without an arrest, would be a massive political liability for most presidential candidates. Trump, of course, is not most politicians. His political identity is built on his defiance of norms and thirst for controversy, and he has already survived dozens of scandals that would have sunk an ordinary politician.

But the fact that Trump still has the support of a significant portion of the Republican base, despite those scandals, is leading some pundits astray. A strange conventional wisdom has emerged amid the news of a potential indictment, particularly among Republicans, that being arrested would actually be good for Trump.

“It’s going to be very bad for the country and good politically—at least in the short term and perhaps for the duration—for Donald J. Trump,” wrote Rich Lowry in the formerly anti-Trump, currently anti-anti-Trump National Review. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham concurred, telling reporters, “The prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today.” Elon Musk predicted that Trump’s arrest would lead him to win in a “landslide,” while disgraced pundit Mark Halperin declared that cuffing the former president could “dramatically, maybe even decisively” alter the 2024 contest.

These predictions rely on the assumption that Trump is Teflon—that scandals that sink normal candidates perversely make him stronger. But that simply isn’t true. There’s no reason to believe that Trump’s arrest would profoundly alter the current political landscape. For the last seven years, he has declared himself the victim of a variety of “witch hunts.” Now, with Manhattan prosecutors closing in, he’s doing the same. Even if those earlier scandals didn’t sink Trump, they certainly didn’t make him stronger: He became the first one-term president in nearly 30 years and ended his time in office with the lowest presidential approval rating in modern American history.

The most curious part of the emerging Trump defense—that this is a politically motivated prosecution—is that no one, with the exception of Trump himself, bothers to deny that there was criminal wrongdoing. Most Americans do not trust Trump; a majority believed Daniels was telling the truth when she came forward five years ago. In the intervening years, he has done a number of things to make people trust him significantly less. “Probably the least popular thing Trump ever did … was inciting his followers to riot in order to disrupt a legal proceeding, namely the ratification of votes in 2020,” observed Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, noting that a 2022 CNN poll “found that 79 percent of Americans said his involvement in the events of Jan. 6 was unethical or illegal.” Now Trump is once again urging his supporters to PROTEST; the similarity to his pre–January 6 posts is hardly subtle. Trump would be more than happy to have his supporters riot, all to show his tormenters that unrest will follow if he were ever to have to face consequences for his actions.

Trump’s calls for protest, combined with the American media’s feverish obsession with the horse race, has led to a surreal situation in which the extent of the violence that greets his arrest will almost certainly be overanalyzed in electoral terms. Trump’s calls for protest have been emphatic and repeated, but thus far there is little evidence that thousands of his supporters will take to the streets in the event of his arrest, let alone of anything on the scale of January 6. As the Associated Press reported on Monday, Trump’s exhortations “have generated mostly muted reactions from supporters, with even some of his most ardent loyalists dismissing the idea [of protesting] as a waste of time or a law enforcement trap.”

If Trump is arrested and MAGA protesters do not come out in force—which seems likely at this point—many will see this as yet another of the many emerging signs that Trump is a diminished and vulnerable figure—that he doesn’t have the sauce he did in 2016, or even 2020, and his crown is ripe for the taking.

Meanwhile, his rivals will certainly try to play both sides. Ron DeSantis, widely considered to be Trump’s most dangerous opponent, has already begun to do this, simultaneously decrying what he sees as the politically motivated nature of Trump’s indictment while also drawing attention to the fact that, well, Trump did pay hush money to a porn star. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” he said immediately after defending the former president. “I just … I can’t speak to that.”

It’s possible that criminal charges would give Trump a small boost during the primary, motivating his most ardent supporters. But the idea that there are millions of undecided Republican voters who will become activated Trump voters if he’s convicted is ludicrous: He will still be running in an election with serious criminal charges circling around him. (DeSantis, presumably, will not be.) The arrest of Trump would not doom him like it would nearly any other political figure; it almost certainly wouldn’t force him out of the race. But it would be a mistake to conflate, as many have, the continued existence of Trump’s gravity-defying political career with the idea that a criminal prosecution would somehow help him. Anyone who believes that wasn’t paying very close attention during the last election.