Washington, DC – Donald Trump’s fourth criminal indictment has raised new questions around the political landscape in the United States, but analysts say it is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the former president’s push for the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination.
The indictment in Georgia – which ensnares Trump and 18 associates in connection with efforts to meddle with the 2020 vote results in the state – fits into the ex-president’s oft-repeated claims that he is being systematically targeted by partisan political elites.
That has been a view largely embraced by his supporters, making it unlikely that the Georgia charges – much like those that preceded them – will hurt Trump’s support in the polls, said Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of the Niskanen Center think tank.
“The reality is that these indictments only solidify his hold over the Republican base,” Kabaservice told Al Jazeera.
“Well before his presidency was up, his followers decided that he was their champion,” he said. “Trump, even before he ran, said that he could go down to Fifth Avenue [in New York City] and shoot somebody and people would still support him, and I think that has proven out.”
Trump – who has denied any wrongdoing in all the cases against him – is the clear frontrunner in the Republican nomination race, leading his closest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, by 38 percentage points, according to an average of recent US polling data maintained by the FiveThirtyEight website.
The poll aggregator found that Trump’s support among Republicans rose sharply in the wake of his first indictment in New York earlier this year on charges related to a hush-money payment made to an adult film star.
Republican support trended downward somewhat following his second indictment in June in a federal case related to his handling of classified documents, and it levelled off in the wake of his third indictment on federal charges related to efforts to subvert the 2020 election, the website said.
But despite the indictments failing to dampen Trump’s early lead, several political observers told Al Jazeera that the unprecedented criminal cases against the former president could represent a liability for him in the general election in November 2024.
That contest will see Trump most likely face off against Democratic President Joe Biden in a rematch of the 2020 vote that Biden won. Just how much of a liability remains to be seen, with several recent polls showing a tight race between the pair.
At the same time, the latest case against Trump is likely to continue to siphon time and resources from him ahead of the busy US election season, said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank and advocacy group in Washington, DC.
“As long as he’s paying for his legal fees from his campaign expenses, it means that he has yet another drain on those campaign expenses,” Olsen told Al Jazeera. “[That] makes it difficult for him to mount the sort of campaign you need in order to win a nomination or win a general election.”
String of indictments
Trump is the first current or former president in US history to be indicted, let alone face criminal charges in four separate cases in both state and federal court.
However, the US Constitution does not prevent a person who is indicted or even convicted of a crime from running for or winning the presidency.
The latest charges in Georgia, laid out in a sweeping, 41-count indictment released on Monday, implicate Trump and 18 lawyers and other aides – including former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani – in a plot to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.
Prosecutors said the group’s efforts included lying to state officials and legislators, harassing election workers, breaching voting machines, and then seeking to cover up their illicit actions, according to the indictment.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is leading the case, has charged Trump and his associates under a state racketeering law – known as a RICO law – that allows prosecutors to charge multiple people who commit separate crimes while working towards a common goal.
Such laws are typically used to prosecute organised crime and corruption.
Despite the sense of a deja vu at another Trump indictment this week, legal observers said the Georgia case stands apart from the other criminal proceedings against the former president for several reasons, many of which could have implications for his political future.
Why the Georgia case stands out
Most significantly, unlike in the other cases, the Georgia racketeering law carries a five-year minimum sentence, meaning that Trump, if found guilty, would be required to serve prison time. But it is unclear how a possible sentence would be handled if Trump were to become president again.
“If in fact – and this is a big if – he is elected president, and he is also convicted, I think we could see a constitutional crisis because we have never seen a sitting president actually imprisoned while in office,” Eric Ham, a political commentator and author, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, though the US Supreme Court has not determined whether a president can be prosecuted while in office, a longstanding US Department of Justice policy also states that sitting presidents are immune from federal prosecution.
At the same time, if Trump were to win the 2024 election and become president again, he would have authority over the department that is prosecuting him in the federal cases, raising the prospect of intervention. Trump, as president, would also have the ability to pardon those convicted of federal crimes, which could include himself.
But no such options exist in Georgia, where pardons cannot be granted by US presidents or governors with the stroke of a pen. “Trump is far more vulnerable based on this [Georgia] indictment than any other indictment,” Ham said.
The large number of Trump confidants indicted alongside him in Georgia – unlikely the other cases in which he was charged alone or with a few aides – also increases the likelihood that some may turn on the former president, said Claire Finkelstein, director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.
Any evidence his associates offer in the Georgia case could affect both the trial and the public’s perception of Trump, potentially in the heat of the presidential race, she told Al Jazeera in a television interview on Tuesday.
“One could well imagine someone like John Eastman … saying I’m going to take a plea here in exchange for providing evidence against Donald Trump,” said Finkelstein, referring to a law professor and Trump ally who was also indicted in Georgia this week.
“A number of the defendants might start to flip,” she added. “I think [Georgia prosecutor Willis] is taking a gamble that some of that will start to happen.”
Finally, the location of the latest indictment in the battleground state of Georgia – which Biden won by only 0.2 percent support over Trump in 2020 – may also prove politically significant.
With an array of state officials closely involved – and in some instances charged – in the case, the trial could have an outsized influence on Georgia public opinion as voters mull who to vote for in 2024.
“Whoever wins Georgia in the general election will likely be the next president of the United States,” Ham said. “And it’s unclear how this indictment and trial is going to play politically there.”
According to Olsen at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the trial in Georgia “certainly means that swing voters in a swing state will likely be more exposed to the details of this than people elsewhere”.
Still, some analysts have cautioned that it may be too soon to tell how the indictments will affect Trump and the 2024 election race, which is still in the earliest days.
Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, DC, warned against putting too much stock in early polling.
With a full primary season ahead, support within the Republican Party still has time to shift, particularly if another candidate begins to gain momentum in the months ahead, she said.
“Primary voters vote for the candidate they love, and they truly love Donald Trump. But they also want to win,” Kamarck told Al Jazeera.
“Trump’s likely weakness in the general election is going to at some point impact Republican primary voters who are right now just standing behind their man.”