Even close followers of the news could be forgiven for losing track of the criminal proceedings against Donald Trump. His indictment in Georgia is his second in a fortnight, and his fourth in total. The 13 new counts added to the scorecard bring the total – so far – to 91. What was once the precedent-shattering prospect of a former president facing trial on serious charges now seems oddly commonplace. That’s without mentioning the two impeachments he survived in office, or the multiple civil cases against him.
Like the federal charges brought by the special counsel Jack Smith earlier this month, these are vastly graver matters than those relating to the payment of hush money to a pornography star, or even to the retention of classified national security documents. The federal case also addresses his attempts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. But Mr Trump would have less ability to interfere with a state-level case if re-elected, and would not be able to pardon himself. The use of Georgia’s racketeering legislation, broader than the federal equivalent, is also striking, and not only because it is usually associated with the pursuit of mobsters. It does not require prosecutors to prove that defendants directly broke the law, but that they knowingly coordinated with others who did so. The charging of 18 alleged co-conspirators may increase the likelihood of former associates flipping and assisting the prosecution.
Nonetheless, the pattern is well established. Prosecutors present detailed evidence against Mr Trump, enlarging on what was already in the public domain. He dismisses the charges as a “witch-hunt”. Republicans who briefly shunned him after the storming of the Capitol now rally to his cause once more. The danger of overestimating the difference that these cases could make on next year’s election is similarly well rehearsed. Most voters made up their minds on Mr Trump long ago. He claims each charge as further evidence of the grand conspiracy he falsely claims denied him victory in 2020 and, therefore, as mandating more support, including financial. The former president himself told voters recently that “we need one more indictment to close out the election”. Previous charges appeared to boost his lead over his Republican rival Ron DeSantis, who is trailing far behind him.
His favourability ratings fell among Republicans following his June indictment over illegally holding classified documents, and last year’s midterms were a reminder of the differences between primary and general election voters. In purely practical terms, the need to fight – and even testify in – criminal cases will be a time-consuming distraction while trying to campaign for the presidency.
Still, the next election is more likely to be swayed by Joe Biden’s ability to convince voters that the economy is thriving – something they are unwilling to believe as yet – and by campaigning on issues such as abortion. This month, citizens in Ohio overwhelmingly rejected the constitutional amendment that Republicans were trying to rush through to fend off abortion rights protections, demonstrating the continued commitment of voters to safeguarding access – and their growing awareness of Republican efforts to tilt elections. Many grow more determined as they see more such efforts.
In contrast, the impact of each set of criminal charges, even if they are more serious than the last, is inevitably reduced somewhat as they accumulate. Democracy is not only about contests of popularity: it cannot survive without procedures of accountability.