(CNN) — The already logic-shattering 2024 White House race is expected to make an extraordinary detour through an Atlanta jail this week, with Donald Trump due to turn himself in over his fourth indictment – for alleged election meddling in Georgia.
The GOP front-runner is expected to surrender, potentially for fingerprinting and a mug shot, on Thursday or Friday, a senior law enforcement source told CNN. That’ll be just hours after the first GOP debate on Wednesday – normally an early defining moment in any campaign, but one that will be overshadowed by Trump’s decision to skip it and his expected appearance at the Fulton County jail soon after. The potential juxtaposition of Trump’s appearance in Georgia with the first debate will show how every aspect of the political calendar is being entangled in Trump’s legal peril and the unprecedented government effort to try a former president – and potential major party nominee – over his effort to overturn his 2020 defeat.
Just as no other candidate facing nearly 100 criminal charges across four cases could even think about running for president, no other GOP leader could confidently snub a prime-time television debate and turn his no-show into an argument for his inevitability. But Trump – as with his attempt to use criminal indictments to advance a political career that has always prospered amid perceptions that he’s being unfairly treated – is changing all the rules of campaigning once again.
Trump’s announcement on Sunday that he wouldn’t show up for the debate in Milwaukee suggests he didn’t think it worth the risk since he has such a significant lead in most primary polling. His legal quagmire is likely to yet again dominate the GOP race, drowning out rivals who have so far largely failed to exploit Trump’s four indictments. Any post-debate bounce for the other candidates from what would normally be critical prime-time exposure is likely to be immediately overtaken by media coverage if Trump shows up at the Fulton County jail for his expected arrest, processing and release.
And Trump is already using his anticipated trip to Georgia as a political weapon, sending out a fundraising appeal on Sunday referencing a Washington Post report about a “violent Atlanta jail with crumbling walls” and accusing Democrats of adopting the totalitarian policies of Soviet and Chinese tyrants Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The email was consistent with Trump’s use of inflammatory language to attack his political foes and to maintain the cash flow that is helping to pay his legal bills.
But his appeal also underscores one of the most head-spinning features of the campaign. A candidate who has a decent chance of being the 47th president is leveraging his unprecedented stack of criminal indictments, which could land him in prison if convicted, to seek political advantage. It’s a tactic that appears to be working among GOP primary voters given his wide polling lead thus far. Whether a potential nominee who could spend much of next year on trial rather than on the campaign trail as a viable general election candidate is another question, however.
A fourth, sweeping indictment
Trump was charged in Fulton County last week under racketeering laws with being the kingpin of an alleged “criminal enterprise” involving 18 others to reverse President Joe Biden’s win in Georgia, a swing state that will again be critical in 2024. Many of those co-defendants are expected to also turn themselves in over the coming days, in a spectacle that will underscore the huge scale of the case being brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, as well as the accounting taking place over a previous election with another campaign well underway.
Trump, the first-ever ex-president to be indicted, had already been charged in two federal probes – one into his election-stealing effort and the other into his mishandling of classified documents at his Florida resort after he left office. Trump, who denies all wrongdoing, is also awaiting trial in Manhattan in a case arising from a hush money payment to an adult film actress in 2016.
The crush of cases means next year is shaping up as an election year like no other as prosecutors and judges juggle trial dates in multiple prosecutions and Trump’s swamped legal team seeks to put off any reckoning until after the November 2024 election. He seems to be hoping to reacquire many of the executive powers that would allow him to freeze criminal cases against him or even pardon himself. But those powers wouldn’t apply to the Georgia and Manhattan prosecutions because of how power is divided between states and the federal government. Still, Trump would almost certainly launch a legal battle to test whether a sitting president is subject to state or local convictions.
All that is far in the future and is dependent on Trump first winning the Republican nomination or the presidency. But in the meantime, the latest indictment unveiled in Georgia further plays into Trump’s core campaign theme – that he’s being persecuted by the Biden administration to prevent him from a White House return.
At the same time, Trump’s conduct after the last election and his handling of classified documents raises another conundrum at the center of this election. If he escaped prosecution for conduct that would leave any other citizen in trouble with the law simply because he’s an ex-president and current presidential candidate, how long can US political and judicial institutions survive?
This clash between what the law seems to require and the risk of further fracturing trust in judicial institutions among millions of voters who think Trump is being politically targeted encapsulates the daunting reality that will haunt next year’s election.
Republicans struggle to deal with Trump’s shadow
This week’s political drama is also likely to show how Trump’s legal plight – combined with his outsize personality and his strategy of flouting conventional campaigning – is making life almost impossible for the Republican challengers seeking his crown.
On Sunday, for instance, the ex-president – basking in a new CBS News national poll showing him with a stunning 46 percentage point lead over his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – announced that, as expected, he’d skip the debate in Milwaukee. “The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, before adding in capital letters, “I will therefore not be doing the debates!”
While he will not be on stage in Wisconsin, another key 2024 swing state, he will dominate the gathering nonetheless. The evening is likely to highlight the difficulty Trump’s rivals have had in harnessing the potential general election liabilities posed by his multiple legal threats without alienating vast swathes of the GOP rank and file who are fully bought into his claims that he’s an innocent victim of politicized justice.
A few GOP candidates have spoken up, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has put savage criticism of Trump at the center of his campaign and was rewarded by likely GOP primary voters with just 2% in the CBS poll. Another Republican candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that Trump’s legal troubles will force every Republican on the debate stage to show their hand.
“It’s important, because there’s difference between the candidates,” he said. “Donald Trump will be in the background, because every candidate needs to state what their position is on Donald Trump and his actions on January 6 and talk about the differences for our future,” Hutchinson told Kasie Hunt. Like Christie, however, Hutchinson barely registers in national primary polls.
Instead of showing up at the Fox News debate, Trump is planning to appear with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox prime-time host who helped amplify his false claims of election fraud, in an interview set to air on Wednesday on the social network X, which was formerly known as Twitter.
“The counterprogramming is typical Trump, right?” said former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a frequent GOP critic of the ex-president, on “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I mean, he wants to suck all the oxygen out of the room. He wants all the attention to be on him and not on the other candidates. And, to some extent, he will probably have some success with that.”
This is just the start. Trump’s arrest in Georgia and his overshadowing of the Republican debate will provide just a small preview this week of how he hopes to ensure that even his mountain of criminal liability does not doom his new White House bid. In fact, he’s trying to ride it back into office.