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Even a Convicted Trump Stands a Reasonable Chance of Winning in 2024

Why we need to hope that Jack Smith—and Fani Willis—have evidence that will make their indictments look like civic and republican necessities, not political hit jobs.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Is this indictment week?

That’s certainly the buzz. Nobody knows, of course, whether the latest shoe is going to drop in the next few days except for special counsel Jack Smith and his prosecutors. What we do know are these three facts. One, Donald Trump’s lawyers met with people from Smith’s office Thursday. Two, the grand jury met for an unusually long session last Thursday, which increased speculation that an indictment is imminent. Three, the target letter sent to Trump earlier last week apparently mentions three possible charges: conspiracy to defraud the government; obstruction of an official governmental proceeding; and attempting to block some citizens’ right to vote, based on a Reconstruction-era law.

I guess it’s fair to say that we also know a fourth thing—Smith’s prosecutors have interviewed numerous witnesses, including Mike Pence and Mark Meadows, who testified before the grand jury. They’re of special interest because it’s entirely possible that they either witnessed Trump breaking the law or Trump told them things that establish his clear intent to break the law. (One of the most common statutory requirements of many high crimes is the establishment of clear intent, for which prosecutors must provide an evidentiary basis.)

Of all the horrible and evil things Trump has done since he entered politics, January 6 was obviously the most horrible and evil. He was the first presidential candidate in the 247-year history of this republic to lose, refuse to accept the will of voters, and attempt to overturn their decision. That much, we all saw with our own two eyes and heard with our own two ears. But: What we all saw and heard may not have been illegal, per se. That’s why what Pence and Meadows, who were present in the proverbial room where it happened, may have told the grand jury is crucial. I would presume that if Smith thinks he has enough evidence to convict a former president, which is also something that’s never been done before, it’s because he knows more than the rest of us know.

All of which is to say that this indictment could—emphasis on could—be mind-blowing. He could have new evidence of something Trump did or said in the run-up to January 6 or on January 6 that will rock us to our core. Let’s hope so.

Why? Because there is still a reasonably good chance that this madman, even if convicted of federal crimes, will win next November. About 35 percent of the country adores him. Another 12 or 13 percent will vote for him against Joe Biden (or any Democrat) simply because they’re Republicans or they’re against abortion rights and they just can’t vote for a Democrat for president. That gets him close. He just needs another 3 or 3.5 percent—a little more than half of the (in my estimation) 6 percent or so of the electorate who are genuine swing voters.

They swung, or a majority of them did, for Trump in 2016 against Hillary Clinton because they’d been conditioned for a quarter-century to hate her and because James Comey reopened that investigation for a few days before the election. Then they swung for Biden in 2020 because Biden seemed normal and the pandemic was raging. It’s still kind of chilling to reflect on it and realize that if there had been no pandemic, Trump probably would have cruised to reelection in 2020.

But there was, and he didn’t; Biden was just the right person at the right time. Today, to a lot of swing voters, I fear Biden may be the wrong man–simply because of his age. They appreciate his accomplishments and his basic decency, and I don’t think they buy the “Biden crime family” garbage. If he were 70, not 80, he’d be sailing. But the facts are the facts: He’s 80, and a lot of people think that’s almost disqualifying. I talked with a couple friends—they follow events, but they don’t work in politics and aren’t obsessed by it—Saturday at my high school class reunion. They’re Democrats, they appreciate Biden’s accomplishments, and they’ll vote for him over Trump. But they weren’t enthusiastic, about either Biden or (especially) Kamala Harris.

Harris may loom larger here than vice presidents usually do for one reason. Trump will undoubtedly make her a central part of his campaign. We all know Trump by now. He’ll say anything. And what he’ll say here will be blunt: Joe Biden is going to die on you, America, and you’ll be stuck with that Black Marxist woman as your president (that’s not me talking, you understand, that’s me channeling him).

So, back to Trump and the possible indictment. I sure hope Smith has the kind of evidence that can make this this prosecution look to your average person like a civic and republican necessity, not a politically motivated hit job. And I hope Fani Willis has much the same down in Atlanta. Rudy Giuliani testified before her grand jury. That guy would throw his mother under the bus to spare his own neck, so the hope here is that he knew something really bad and sang like a bird.

Our democracy is in deep, deep trouble if Trump wins. He’ll find a way to make himself president for life, or he’ll install one of his kids. He’ll destroy and subvert the executive branch in a thousand ways. My high school pals were not at all confused on that point. The question is whether swing voters will see this.

This, to me, is the most maddening aspect of the Trump era. With respect to views of the man, there are three types of Americans: those who revile him; those who adore him; and the small middle group who see nothing unusual in him—he’s just another politician, maybe a little embarrassing at times, but like all of his ilk, he did some good things and some bad things. I can almost understand the people who adore him more than I can those who’ve somehow remained indifferent. They tend to be comparatively low-information voters, and the idea that the fate of our republic hangs on their verdict is something less than reassuring.