On the tarmac of Waco Regional Airport last weekend, just a few miles from the site of the deadly stand-off between federal law enforcement and members of the Branch Davidian religious cult 30 years ago, Donald Trump delivered his latest, defiant manifesto for his place in American politics.
“I am your warrior, I am your justice,” the former president told his supporters, as he lashed out at political foes on the left and the right under the clear blue Texas sky. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed . . . I am your retribution.”
Trump knew he was likely to be indicted soon by Alvin Bragg, the district attorney in Manhattan, in a case involving hush money paid to adult film actor Stormy Daniels — just one of several criminal investigations he has been facing since leaving the White House.
But it all became real on Thursday evening when a grand jury in New York voted to bring charges against him in a watershed moment for American democracy. Now 76, the real estate developer and reality television host will go down in US history as the first former president to face a criminal indictment and, if convicted, a potential prison sentence.
Trump’s new brush with disgrace, after his legacy was already blemished by two impeachments handed down in the House of Representatives, is not just a matter for historians. Despite his legal woes, he remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 White House race, and has been gaining ground in national polls over declared rivals such as Nikki Haley, his former ambassador to the UN, as well as Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and his most formidable undeclared opponent.
“How does this end? Trump wins in court and he wins at the ballot box,” said Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina and one of his closest allies. This statement will ring as a wishful prediction to the former president’s enduring fans in conservative America and a dire warning to much of the rest of the country and beyond.
The fact that the New York case will yield Trump’s first indictment, rather than other probes related to his role in the January 6 insurrection, his mishandling of classified documents or his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, marks a new chapter in his love-hate relationship with his native city.
Born at Jamaica Hospital in Queens in June 1946, Trump made his name as one of New York’s dominant property moguls. He launched his successful presidential campaign in 2016 by gliding down the golden escalator of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. But he has since moved to his lavish resort at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, and frequently lashes out at his hometown as ruined by leftwing politicians, policies and prosecutors. If, as expected, he surrenders to authorities next week, he will be arraigned in a New York court — a new low in his association with the city.
The political impact of Trump’s indictment is still unclear, although he has vowed to fight the charges and stay in the 2024 presidential race. Republicans of all stripes have rushed to his defence, and he may benefit in the short term from the perception, fuelled by rightwing media, that he is the victim of political persecution.
But in an election, his legal travails could be a huge vulnerability: voters punished many Republicans who were closely associated with him in last November’s midterms. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed that 57 per cent of Americans believe criminal charges should disqualify Trump from running for president, with a majority of both Democrats and independents holding that view.
Trump has shown no signs of being chastened or moving towards more moderate or conciliatory positions in recent months. In fact, he has appeared increasingly unhinged in both social media posts and speeches such as the one at Waco. He has warned of “potential death and destruction” in the event that he was charged by Bragg, labelling him a “degenerate psychopath”. And he has continued to hail his good relationship with authoritarian leaders around the world, from China’s Xi Jinping to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “I am the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent world war three,” he said at a stop in Iowa this month.
But Trump has also not lost his knack for campaigning, and his base of supporters, both among ordinary voters and many Republicans in Congress, remains solidly loyal. He has reignited many of the methods — such as nicknaming and mocking his opponents — that allowed him to defeat Republican rivals as well as Hillary Clinton in 2016.
They failed, however, against Joe Biden. And as Trump has recaptured the political stage on the right, the White House has been careful not to fan the flames or gloat.
“[Trump] will be able to avail himself of the legal system and a jury, not politics, to determine his fate according to the facts and the law,” said Chuck Schumer, a fellow New Yorker and the Senate majority leader.
Many Democrats have yearned for what they regard as a long overdue legal reckoning for the former president since Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But while they see this week’s criminal charges against Trump as the first stage, all they want is for the process to play out peacefully.