The Trump saga continues

The Trump saga continues

Donald Trump has returned to New York City, this time to face criminal charges. It’s an odd opening for the next political chapter in his life. The former president may still face charges he mishandled classified documents after leaving the White House. Far more serious would be an indictment in the state of Georgia for pressuring local officials to help him steal that state’s electoral votes in the 2020 election. The gravest possible criminal charge would be that Trump incited the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol building to halt the legal transfer of power to Joe Biden.

Instead, Trump’s latest legal saga opens with charges he paid a pornographic actress on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election to keep her quiet about a one-time sexual encounter between them, and then falsifying his campaign’s financial records to cover his tracks. It’s a case brought by a local New York prosecutor whose own candidacy for office included tough talk of a Trump indictment.

The other charges may well follow. The case in Georgia poses a particular threat, because the evidence against Trump includes audio recordings of his phone calls with state election officials. For now, however, we begin with a charge that will seem frivolous – at least by Trump standards – even to some of the former president’s toughest critics.

But, of course, Trump is more than a former president. He’s a leading candidate to become president again, and the polls suggest he begins the 2024 race for the Republican Party nomination solidly in first place. A poll published on April 3 found Trump had the backing of 55% of Republican voters, giving him a nearly 30-point lead over his nearest challenger for the GOP nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

For those watching this drama from outside the United States, it may be hard to imagine that criminal charges could boost a presidential candidacy, but Trump retains a remarkable ability, unique in US presidential history, to persuade millions of voters that his personal grievances are theirs too. He’s helped by the reality that the “porn star hush money case” seems to many politically motivated. Even if charges in the more serious cases follow, Trump’s ability to persuade supporters he’s the victim of a “witch hunt” is now on the rise.

In most ways, Trump’s travails are a nightmare for his party. For now, most Republicans, including some who will run for president against him, are echoing his charge that this prosecution is political. But each of them must decide over the 19 months to Election Day how closely to embrace him. If Trump wins the Republican nomination, his historically heavy political and legal baggage, as well as public exhaustion with his resentment-based theatrics, will make him the weakest of the party’s potential candidates to defeat President Biden. Every Republican official will then have to calculate how association with Trump and a likely-to-fail candidacy will affect their own political futures. In short, a Trump nomination might splinter the party.

Europeans and Ukraine have greatest cause for concern since Trump has made clear his preference for better relations with Vladimir Putin and his lack of interest in even indirect involvement in his war

But Trump might be more damaging for the Republican Party if he doesn’t win its nomination. In that case, the full weight of his wrath may fall on the GOP and the candidate it nominates in his place. Voters more loyal to Trump personally than to his party might refuse to vote for anyone, costing the GOP dearly. It’s also possible Trump might run for president as an independent candidate, crippling the Republican nominee by stripping away votes in states like Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and others that will decide the 2024 election’s final outcome. In either case, the relentlessly televised spectacle of Trump on trial and the likelihood that it will inspire acts of violence will make the 2024 US presidential election the most potentially toxic US vote in more than 150 years.

Finally, there is the question now beginning to circle the globe: What if Trump wins? What if he becomes president all over again? Biden will be 82 years old on Election Day, and there’s no way to confidently predict the strength of the US economy – the key to a Biden victory – in the months before the vote. Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination, and if he does, he can be elected president. That outcome must alter the thinking of American allies and rivals alike – not in 2024 but now.

As focus on Trump intensifies and the campaign heats up, other governments will take all Biden’s plans and pledges with a grain of salt. Over the past generation, the world has seen American political leadership oscillate from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump and then to Biden. Control of Congress has changed hands multiple times. The uncertain next election season was always going to encourage other governments to hedge the bets on the future of US politics, but the Trump wildcard will electrify that process.

Europeans and Ukraine have greatest cause for concern since Trump has made clear his preference for better relations with Vladimir Putin and his lack of interest in even indirect involvement in his war. In particular, NATO’s eastern-most members – Poland, the Baltic states, and new member Finland – have most to fear. US allies in Asia – Japan, South Korea, Australia – will also worry about a Trump return and his more transactional approach to partnerships that would leave them more exposed to China’s expansion. Most Arab leaders in the Middle East, on the other hand, would welcome the restoration of Trump and his indifference toward the shift toward green energy they hope can be delayed. But the big international winner from a Trump return would surely be Putin, who knows it would provide his biggest break since he launched the war to restore Russia’s empire.

In the meantime, the Trump legal and political story will only become more complicated, and there are surely many more plot twists to come.

* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “The Power of Crisis.”

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