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Equine analogy helps in assessing impact of a Trump indictment

Ex-president presents yet another unprecedented event to try to analyze

There’s not much value in predicting in advance the political impact if former President Donald Trump were indicted, Nathan L. Gonzales writes.
There’s not much value in predicting in advance the political impact if former President Donald Trump were indicted, Nathan L. Gonzales writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Political candidates getting arrested is no laughing matter, but one comedian’s perspective could help stave off the temptation to predict the fallout from former President Donald Trump’s legal problems.

Back in 2018, former “Saturday Night Live” writer/comedian John Mulaney tried to describe what it was like to follow the Trump presidency. “It’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital. I think eventually everything’s going to be OK, but I have no idea what’s gonna happen next. And neither do any of you, and neither do your parents, because there’s a horse loose in the hospital.” 

There’s a not-safe-for-work version (depending on where you work) of the bit and a slightly different and cleaner version from a late night talk show interview on YouTube. 

Mulaney goes on to explain the difficult time the media has in explaining evolving and unprecedented situations.

“There’s no experts,” Mulaney jokes. “They try to find experts on the news. They’re like, ‘We’re joined now by a man that once saw a bird in the airport.’ It’s like, get out of here with that s—. We’ve all seen a bird in the airport. This is a horse loose in a hospital.”

That feels close to the political uncertainty we’re about to face.

After his 2016 victory, I’m not sure why anyone would make a firm prediction about Trump’s political future. But just because the Access Hollywood tape didn’t prevent him from getting elected president, impeachment didn’t prohibit him from winning the 2020 nomination, and his unwillingness to quell the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 didn’t fundamentally hurt his support among Republican voters, that doesn’t mean Trump won’t suffer from future legal problems. 

This is unlike anything Trump or any other former president has faced. When words such as “arrest,” “surrendering to officials” and “being taken into custody” are part of the conversation, we’re going places that we haven’t been before as a country. 

It’s clear that many Republicans have been willing to ignore, deny, forgive or deflect Trump’s worst behaviors. But the ongoing investigations and potential indictments will test that resolve, and it’s difficult to predict voters’ level of tolerance. Are GOP voters fine with one indictment but not two? What about three indictments? Or four? Are voters making a distinction between individual cases or just lumping them together? 

It’s not just a matter of whether they think Trump is guilty. If enough Republicans believe his legal problems will hurt the party’s ability to defeat President Joe Biden, then Trump could lose support. But if it happens, will it last?

Just three months ago, Trump was bleeding GOP base support, according to an Axios analysis, and now he’s recovering and gaining in a hypothetical 2024 matchup against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to a new Monmouth University survey. 

While Trump will continue to decry the investigations as witch hunts and the former president appears to be impervious to shame, the details of the Stormy Daniels hush money case have to at least be uncomfortable for Trump. By repeatedly mentioning “porn star” and “hush money” when asked about the potential indictment, DeSantis telegraphed how Trump’s detractors will attack. 

Trump’s supporters are trying to make the case that any indictment or arrest is a threat to democracy because he is a candidate. But they’re not arguing in good faith. Being a candidate doesn’t make you immune from consequences, and plenty of senators, House members and governors have been investigated, charged and convicted of crimes. And, if candidates couldn’t be prosecuted, then anyone being investigated by the new Republican House majority should simply “announce” for office. 

At a minimum, any Trump indictments and arrests should be called historic. But that’s different from being game changers politically. Two of the worst times to evaluate the political ramifications of an event are before it happens and while it’s happening. It could take days or even a few weeks for any indictment or arrest to soak in, for voters to form an opinion and for pollsters to pick that up. 

For now, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and wait. 

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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