You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Going Negative

How the Trump Indictment Changes the Game—for Joe Biden

Republicans are handing a gift to the Democratic incumbent. But he’ll have to abandon the core of his 2020 message to capitalize on the opportunity.

Yuri Gripas/Getty Images

When he announced his presidential campaign four years ago, Joe Biden insisted that Donald Trump was an outlier, a stain on both America and the Republican Party. “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden said in a video announcement. It’s a clunky phrase befitting of a clunky idea: Biden’s seeming belief that Trump somehow emerged from a vacuum to effect a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. This notion was also, arguably, the central plank of Biden’s campaign message as well as his larger political strategy. He wanted to win over Republicans and swing voters and thought the best way to do so was by surgically removing Trump from the GOP: If you want to save both America and the Republican Party, vote for Joe Biden.

Biden clung to this rhetoric throughout the interminable Democratic primary and the general election: Donald Trump may be a Republican, but he is not like other Republicans: He is not only vulgar and dishonest, but authoritarian and despotic; truly unlike a party comprised of tens of millions of decent folks. “This is not the Republican Party,” Biden would often say, forever citing his “Republican friends in the House and Senate.” Here, Biden pointed at a solution: If elected, he could undo the gridlock that has characterized the Beltway for decades and, as a true creature of the Senate, cut through the Gordian knot of partisanship. In so doing, the Trumpian spirits would, for all intents and purposes, be exorcised—from the GOP and the body politic.

It was ultimately a winning message. It’s still not obvious that it was correct. Biden himself has essentially cast it aside. In the lead-up to the midterm elections, he began castigating “extreme MAGA Republicans”—another awkward phrase, but a step in the right direction. Here, Biden was differentiating not between Trump and the Republican Party but between the sizable portion of the Republican Party that had been captured by Trump and whatever was left of the older, less chaotic, and outwardly authoritarian Grand Old Party. The between-the-lines presumption was that perhaps this sort of conservative took enough of a liking to Biden’s normalcy schtick in 2020 to cast their votes in his direction.

Now, as the 2024 election rapidly approaches—and as Biden’s reelection campaign awkwardly slips into gear—he faces a similar challenge: Should he return to the old message and isolate Trump as an aberration, or update his metaphor to yoke the Republican Party more firmly to the Trumpian criminality and despotism that the GOP makes no bones about embracing? Trump has just been indicted in New York on 34 felony counts related to a hush-money payment made to a porn star in the waning days of the 2016 election. It is possible—and perhaps likely—that he may be indicted twice more: in Georgia, where he pressured the secretary of state to “find” thousands of votes weeks after the 2020 election ended, and in Washington, D.C., where the Department of Justice is investigating his refusal to hand over numerous classified documents that were unlawfully taken from the White House to his private residence in Florida.

This is, to use one of Biden’s favorite words from the 2020 campaign, an aberration: Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination, both declared and presumed, have not been indicted. They have not been accused of paying hush money or deliberately hoarding classified documents or leading insurrections. They are, for the most part, pretty normal Republicans, at least by 2023 standards. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, has risen to prominence by defying public health recommendations relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, attacking “woke” corporations, and banning books relating to racism, gender, and sexuality. Nikki Haley, a former governor who served as Trump’s United Nations ambassador, has similarly emphasized an exhaustive range of cultural grievances in the early phase of her campaign.

But DeSantis and Haley—and pretty much every other Republican in the race—have aggressively come to Trump’s defense rather than pick this opportune moment to finally get shot of the former president. DeSantis, who governs Trump’s home state, pledged to refuse any extradition order from New York state, where Trump was indicted earlier this month. “The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American,” DeSantis tweeted. “The [George] Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal misconduct. Yet, now he is stretching the law to target a political opponent.” That was, more or less, the party line. “I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” said Mike Pence.

Republicans have whined about the fact that Trump’s indictment has dominated early coverage of the primary. “It feels like fucking 2016,” a DeSantis-supporting GOP strategist told Politico on Monday. “Is there anything that can suck up as much political oxygen in the American political landscape as Trump? I don’t think so.”

He’s not wrong! But the candidates themselves are making this situation worse. Instead of contrasting themselves with Trump—and instead of reminding voters that, you know, the guy is a crook—they’re not only embracing him but elevating him and his preferred narrative: That he is a victim of a profound and unprecedented conspiracy to damage him politically. No wonder they’re all struggling in the polls—they keep telling Republican voters that Trump is the rightful president, instead of running against him.

For Democrats, and for Biden in particular, any time Republican elites opt to defend and embrace Trump is an opportunity. There is no air between Trump and his ostensible opponents in the Republican primary. Every candidate agrees: Trump’s lawlessness is, in fact, good; political candidates should be allowed to rampantly violate campaign finance law to shield voters from crucial information in the lead-up to a historic election. Trump’s lawlessness is the Republican Party’s, full stop.

Facts First USA, the controversial consultant David Brock’s latest foray into politics, is pushing Democrats to extend Trump’s indictment to the entire Republican Party. “The Trump indictment(s) ultimately stand as an indictment of House Republicans and their efforts to shield Trump and other lawbreakers, including those within their own conference,” Brock wrote in a memo that accuses the GOP of “siding with criminals.” It’s a shrewd idea, even coming from a stopped clock. It also should be extended to Trump’s rivals in the 2024 race and, for that matter, the GOP writ large. It’s Donald Trump’s party now and it has been for a long time. It’s also a party in which lawlessness and authoritarianism have been normalized to such an extent, that even with the off-ramp from Trumpism gaping on this side of the road, no one wants to take it.