Former President Trump’s legal obligations are becoming increasingly intertwined with his political aspirations, with court dates threatening to split his time and attention in the heart of the 2024 presidential race.
Trump is set to go on trial in Washington and New York City next March, right in the middle of the GOP primary calendar, and his opponents have been happy to seize on the conflicts as evidence Trump will be too distracted to take on President Biden.
But with Trump’s first trial scheduled for the day before Super Tuesday, there is also the question of whether the former president may have effectively clinched the Republican nomination by the time his court dates begin in earnest.
“He can’t have it wrapped up, meaning he can’t be the presumptive nominee, per se, but I think if he were to win the first four contests by wide margins, he could be seen as the likely nominee,” said Sean Spicer, a former Trump White House press secretary and former Republican National Committee spokesperson.
Spicer said a Trump romp through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada could make it difficult for a rival candidate to secure the necessary funding from donors to continue in the race.
“But I think there’s a lot of candidates that, depending on how they fare in the first four states, can say, ‘Screw it, I’m going to keep going for another week or two and see what happens,’” Spicer added.
So far, the GOP electorate has shown a high tolerance for Trump’s legal woes, with his polling numbers even seeing a bump after some of his recent indictments. But some candidates seem to hope that will change as trials begin and a possible conviction comes into view.
Trump’s trial in Washington over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results and remain in power is scheduled for March 4.
Super Tuesday will take place March 5, when hundreds of delegates will be up for grabs in primaries in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia, as well as the American Samoa caucuses.
Trump is scheduled to go on trial March 25 in Manhattan over an alleged hush money scheme to cover up an affair in the lead-up to the 2016 election. That trial date would fall two days after the Louisiana primary and one week before the April 2 primaries in Delaware, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
Trump’s trial in Florida over his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House is scheduled for May 20. Although that date may get moved as Trump’s team fights for delays, the current date would see the trial begin one day before Kentucky and Oregon hold their primaries. There would be only six more primaries on the calendar after that.
Already, some of Trump’s Republican rivals have pointed to the former president’s looming court dates as a potential vulnerability.
“Maybe he should think about getting out of the race since he’ll be spending most of March and half of April in a courtroom in Washington, D.C., not fighting the fight against Joe Biden, like I’ll be doing every day,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said last week on CNN.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has called Trump’s mounting legal issues a “distraction.”
But there are skeptics that Trump’s court dates intersecting with the primary calendar will have much of an impact on the outcome.
Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 campaign, called it an “unprecedented” situation, making it difficult to predict how the trials might affect Trump’s ability to campaign.
There is also the fact Trump is not legally obligated to attend his trial. Federal criminal law states a defendant can waive their right to be present for their trial.
Even if Trump is stuck in a courtroom for parts of March and April, his campaign style is less reliant on flooding primary states with in-person events to drum up support.
“People know who Donald Trump is. It’s not like he’s been the king of retail politics. He goes in and does rallies,” said Spicer, who now hosts a podcast and is a contributor to NewsNation, which is owned by Nexstar, like The Hill.
There is also the reality for Trump’s opponents that a growing docket of charges against the former president has yet to significantly damage his support among Republicans, even if it could prove problematic for Trump in a general election.
A Marist poll conducted just before Trump was indicted in Georgia found 66 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view Trump as the best person to lead the GOP in 2024, while 65 percent said they plan to support Trump in 2024, up from 58 percent in July.
A Morning Consult poll published last week found 62 percent of potential Republican primary voters believe Trump has the best chance of beating Biden in 2024, matching his highest total in a Morning Consult poll to date.
“We’re at a different point now because people know this about him. The question will be what new information about him that is going to be relevant to people’s decision is going to be imparted,” said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.
“At this point there’s been so many of these indictments, and I think people know that he has serious legal troubles,” Reeher said. “They I think figure this is what you get with this guy, and then there are different conclusions you draw from that depending on what your politics are and what your personal feelings are toward this former president and his style.”