Are Trump's legal woes paving the way for a new Republican leader?

The former president's business and political brands are separate, but only for now

Former US President Donald Trump remains the clear leader of the American right. But cracks in this mighty edifice are visible and slowly seem to be spreading.

Charges filed last week in the state of New York accuse the former president’s family business, and its long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, of criminally avoiding taxes on perks that should have been reported as income.

The immediate impact is limited in several ways.

First, Mr Trump himself has yet to be charged with a crime, although a growing list of his closest associates have pled guilty or been convicted or pardoned for serious offenses. Second, no matter what happens to the firm, Mr Trump will apparently remain a wealthy man.

Finally, prosecutors are seeking to pressure Mr Weisselberg to provide evidence against Mr Trump. But there is no sign he is ready to do so. As with many white-collar offences, the prosecution will have to establish an intent to commit a crime, which is not always easy or possible.

White-collar defendants have a much easier time than run-of-the-mill criminals in claiming that they made a mistake, didn't realise what they were doing or that their prosecution is either a vendetta or a difference in the interpretation of complex rules and regulations.

Typical sentences are much weaker than those given for more straightforward crimes like grand larceny. Mr Weisselberg, who is 73, could face some jail time, perhaps even a few years. But merely being indicted may not be sufficient at this stage to get him to flip on a man he has worked for since 1973.

Much will hinge on whether this will be followed by additional and more serious charges against the company and its employees. The indictment lists two other unnamed staffers, rumoured to be Mr Weisselberg’s sons, suspected of similar tax dodging.

If Mr Weisselberg concludes that he is in real danger of spending his golden years in prison or that his sons might be joining him in the dock, that could certainly restructure his priorities.

But if this is all there is to it, it is possible to imagine him simply hunkering down and fighting it out.

There is a significant disconnect between Mr Trump’s business and political brands, and the two do not always reinforce each other effectively. In politics, the Trump brand is decidedly white working class in orientation. In business, the name is intended to connote upscale (some would say gaudy) luxury and exclusivity. Mr Trump has alienated much of that market with his populist pandering.

But Mr Trump is also reportedly far more concerned with his political future than the fortunes of his company, which is now run by his sons and over which he has not formally resumed control since leaving office.

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The good news for Trump is that he remains the most influential Republican. But he no longer dominates the news cycle as he once did

The charges themselves are a political blow, but also help to feed his grievance-fuelled narrative of being persecuted relentlessly and unfairly by unpatriotic forces in the imaginary construct he calls the American "deep state".

So, these indictments against his company and senior executives could prove a wash: both embarrassing and validating, depending on the audience.

The good news for Mr Trump is that he remains the most influential Republican.

The bad news is that political trends seem to be increasingly out of his control and moving away from him.

He certainly no longer dominates the news cycle as he once did. Since he was permanently banned from Twitter, he has been unable to find an effective vehicle for his fervid outbursts.

He started a blog that was shut down after less than a month because not enough people were reading it. His associates have talked about a new social media platform, but there is no sign of one. And there doesn't appear to be any meaningful movement towards a Trump TV or media network.

Two weeks ago, Mr Trump held his first rally since his election defeat. It was largely ignored by the media and he introduced no new ideas or themes. He did not meaningfully discuss President Joe Biden's agenda or any other significant recent developments. Instead, he harped on the myth of a stolen election and his purported accomplishments in office.

He's not the only nostalgia act drawing big crowds. The rock group The Eagles are also currently touring the US, performing the1976 album Hotel California in full, along with other golden oldies. They, too, will draw large and passionate crowds. But they won’t be setting any trends.

Mr Trump’s situation can be likened to the legendary rock band The Eagles, which is currently touring the United States, performing its 1976 album Hotel California in full, along with other golden oldies. They, too, will draw large and passionate crowds. But they won’t be setting any trends.

Meanwhile, all efforts to expose the supposed fraud are, to the contrary, reinforcing the validity of the last US election.

A Trump-supporting Michigan state legislator chaired a commission that investigated supposedly suspicious results in that state, which Mr Trump insists he won. Their report conclusively demonstrates that he lost, and notes that claims to the contrary are absurd, and even malicious, fabrications.

Mr Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, has just given his first substantive interview since leaving office, and said that while he had every motivation to discover and expose fraud, there wasn't any. He dismissed the whole idea in colourful language.

Mr Trump, of course, is bitterly lashing out against all of these apostates. But that, too, will ultimately make it harder for him to maintain the loyalty of others.

Instead, evidence is mounting that Mr Trump went much further than previously known in trying to overturn the election, with repeated phone calls to Arizona election officials now joining those on the record with state leaders in Georgia and Michigan.

The former president’s standing among Republicans appears to be gradually deflating.

Last year, polls repeatedly showed that most conservatives identified primarily as Trump supporters and secondarily as Republicans. Now, that ratio has inverted, with more identifying primarily as Republicans and only secondarily as the former president’s acolytes.

And, most ominously for Mr Trump, there is finally serious talk of a successor.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is being increasingly viewed as a potential national Republican leader. If this notion gains more traction, it may provoke the former president to try to cut him down to size through nasty, belittling attacks.

A year ago, Mr DeSantis would have been terrified of that. By now, though, surviving a Trumpian onslaught could be just what he needs to establish himself as the first really plausible potential post-Trump Republican leader.

Published: July 4th 2021, 2:00 PM
Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National