This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘Will Donald Trump end up in prison or the White House?’

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. Our topic this week is the future of Donald Trump and of American democracy. The former US president was indicted this week on charges related to his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. But Trump is also, of course, running in the 2024 presidential election, and the polls suggest he’s likely to win the Republican nomination. To help me untangle all of this, I’m joined this week by Peter Trubowitz, who’s director of the United States Centre at the London School of Economics. So could Trump still beat the rap and win the presidency?

Jack Smith
The attack on our nation’s capital on January 6 2021 was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy. As described in the indictment, it was fuelled by lies: lies by the defendant, targeted at obstructing a bedrock function of the US government — the nation’s process of collecting, counting and certifying the results of the presidential election.

Gideon Rachman
That was Jack Smith, the special counsel who’s indicted Trump, explaining the charges. The Trump campaign predictably dismissed all this as a conspiracy against the former president and even likened the modern United States to Nazi Germany. The former president could be facing as many as five legal cases next year on a range of charges, including an alleged attempt to pay hush money to a woman he had a relationship with to a case over the mishandling of classified information after he left the presidency. But I began my conversation with Peter Trubowitz by suggesting that this latest indictment of all the many cases that Trump faces is by far the most serious.

Peter Trubowitz
Yes. Yeah. I mean, I think this is the big one, the one that, Gideon, everyone has been expecting and the one where I think Trump is arguably the most vulnerable. But I really think what makes this indictment different, and it’s amazing that we’re drawing distinctions between indictments here, because no American president has ever been indicted before. I think what makes this one different than the others, that is, you know, the indictment over paying hush money to a porn star, the indictment concerning the mishandling of classified documents. What makes it different and so important are the stakes and the risks that are involved here. I think they’re huge. I mean, there is a big risk that this indictment will only fuel charges by Trump’s allies that the justice department is engaged in a witch hunt and polarise an already deeply divided electorate. But the alternative, which would have been effectively to turn a blind eye to a mountain of evidence that Trump sought to circumvent the will of the voters would have set a dangerous precedent, basically giving future presidents a wide berth to question and to challenge electoral results that they didn’t like. In my view, I don’t think the special counsel, Jack Smith, had much choice in bringing this forward. But we shouldn’t ignore the potential downside risk here, especially I might add, for the US to lose the case against Donald Trump, which is a possibility.

Gideon Rachman
And why do you think it’s taken so long? I mean, because obviously, these relate to the events of January the 6th, 2021. We’re now nearly at the 2024 presidential election, and that surely gives Trump a chance to just keep delaying the proceedings ‘til the other side of the election, when people are already speculating he might try and pardon himself if he were to win.

Peter Trubowitz
Exactly. And, you know, this cuts against the argument that what you’re suggesting here that this has all been done to coincide with the elections. I think that experienced prosecutors basically take their time when the stakes are as high as they are here. And while the optics are not good and they play into the hands of those who think that the justice department is being weaponised, I think this has really much more to do with getting your ducks in a row than electioneering, because if it were the latter, they would have moved much sooner. To me, this is awfully close and we’re basically 15 months from the election right now. And Trump is a master of delay and you could easily, I mean, imagine this thing, this and the other cases being delayed and strung out for the next 15 months. I mean, I don’t think that’s impossible. I think the special prosecutor, special counsel here has done things to streamline the case in the hopes of avoiding the kind of thing that you’re talking about. But I don’t think there are any guarantees.

Gideon Rachman
So we’re gonna have the spectacle then over this, you say, the next 15 months of a legal process, several legal processes, because as you say, there are many cases and the political process of the election unfolding at the same time. Does anyone, do you think, have a sense of how this timetable can be made to work? I mean, will Trump be spending a lot of time that he would want to be out on the campaign trail in court?

Peter Trubowitz
Yes, possibly. Or he might be using that to argue for delays. And I think we’re just in uncharted territory. I don’t think anybody really knows how it will play. And it depends in part, I think, upon the individual judges in these cases, they may come down on these matters differently. But, you know, as I was mentioning before, I mean, I think partly what’s going on here is in the special counsel’s indictment is that there’s an aim, a real plan or an effort to try to wrap this thing up as quickly as possible. I mean, he could have opted to do what the January 6 House committee had recommended that the justice department do, which was to charge Trump with seditious conspiracy. And there were many who wanted to see that not only in the House of Representatives but in the country at large.

Gideon Rachman
And that would be to clarify, seditious conspiracy would be to say that he deliberately inspired the events of January the 6th. The special counsel hasn’t gone there.

Peter Trubowitz
Exactly. And the problem is, is to have gone there it would have raised difficult First Amendment issues about whether or not Trump’s speech that day and January 6 could be construed as a political rally. His lawyers almost certainly would have argued that, and that would have delayed things. So Jack Smith, clearly I mean, he’s dropped that, I think, to streamline the case.

The other thing that was also interesting about the 45-page indictment is, as you know, there were six co-conspirators mentioned but not named in the indictment. I think at this point, everybody knows the name of five of the six, but only Trump is being charged and presumably here, too, in hopes of expediting the case and perhaps getting even one or more of the unnamed co-conspirators to co-operate with the government, but basically to streamline and target and narrow the focus of the case.

I mean, I think whether Trump can handle this, I mean, financially, the guy is dealing with all these different cases. He has gotten huge cash infusions from his court supporters in response to the previous two indictments. But there’s some evidence, at least if you look at the last quarter of donations to campaign finance donations, that they’re decreasing. I mean, there’s also the question of just like emotionally, I think most people would be crushed like this. But this guy seems to thrive on the conflict. And I think the last thing to just say about this is I think it’s kind of been lost in all the news. He’s got a huge stake in the outcome of the election at this point, Trump. I mean, winning and losing, you know, could be like the difference between going to jail, you know, or not. And . . . 

Gideon Rachman
Going to jail and being president. It’s that pretty stark alternative.

Peter Trubowitz
I mean, it’s like I mean, it’s just unbelievable. So I think we, you know, as a result, I think we can expect Trump to do everything he can to clearly defeat his Republican opponents, to delay the court proceedings for as long as possible and in hopes that he can effectively, like, run out the clock and get to the election. And, you know, in principle have his day in the public court and win the election.

Gideon Rachman
And to be clear, I mean, these charges that he’s facing, they are the kinds of things that would actually get him sent to prison.

Peter Trubowitz
Yeah. So apparently, I mean, they the punishment for these things, these charges, let’s say not maybe the hush money charges, but these charges in this indictment. Most people looking at it said these are very, very strong charges. And one strong view on this is that the special counsel made the right judgment in dropping the seditious conspiracy. The thing about being charged and if you’re convicted for seditious conspiracy, then Trump would not be allowed to stand for election. That is not true, as I understand it, with these other charges but it would be hard to avoid jail time.

Gideon Rachman
So as you say, the stakes couldn’t be higher. But if his get-out-of-jail card literally in this case is to win the election in that regard, he’s got a good chance, hasn’t he? I mean, he seems pretty much let’s deal with the Republican nomination first. And the polls are staggering. I mean, he’s way ahead of Ron DeSantis, I think 37 points ahead. And do you think that this indictment has any chance of changing that?

Peter Trubowitz
Well, it’s a great question. And I would say, as crazy as it sounds, he’s a reasonable bet to win the nomination right now. I say crazy, too, because I mean, normally, Gideon, I mean, you know, an indictment like this would take you (inaudible) much, you know, infractions that are much less than this would take you out of the running. But these are not normal times, he’s not an average politician. I would say two things here. Right now, the nomination is Trump’s to lose, so we can just say that. Then I think the question is, is there any way he could lose it? And I would say there’s two things to keep our eyes on here. In addition to how the indictment unfolds and how tight a case it is, how fair it looks to the average American viewing it. The first, I would say, one of these kind of a known unknown here is Chris Christie, and the second one is Republican donors. Christie’s unlikely to win the nomination. In the poll you just referred to, I think it was the New York Times poll just a couple of days ago, Christie’s polling about 1 per cent.

Gideon Rachman
He’s the former governor of New Jersey and a sort of sworn enemy of Donald Trump.

Peter Trubowitz
Yes, but once a supporter.

Gideon Rachman
Mm-hmm.

Peter Trubowitz
And he is, I would say, the one person in the arena, to use Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase, who has the political chops to hurt Trump in the debate in a way that could cost Trump in the court of public opinion. I have been very struck about how Christie has been calling him out for the debate that’s supposed to take place later this month. And I think that’s like one place where Trump is potentially vulnerable, that things could move in a direction that he’s just not quite prepared for. He’s not dealing with Jeb Bush this time. Christie was angling perhaps to be his VP, but certainly in the last, in the 2016 election, was not challenging Donald Trump. He’s made it clear, he’s put down markers that he plans to do that.

Secondly, it’s pretty clear that many big Republican donors would prefer someone other than Donald Trump, I think largely because they don’t think he can win the general election. And they’ve been looking for another horse to bet on, and they thought they had one in DeSantis, but DeSantis is now fading and they’re casting about somebody else to invest in. So I think if they can agree on one that has legs, it’s not hard to imagine someone being well positioned were Trump to stumble. But they’ve got to find somebody that they can rally around. And, you know, right now it looks like the person that is getting most of the attention is Tim Scott, the senator of South Carolina, but it’s still too early to say. Anyway, the fact that I’m looking for a viable political alternative and have to concoct a scenario, this tells you something. Right now, the nomination really is Trump’s to lose.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, and just a footnote on that. But it strikes me, if I were Trump, I just wouldn’t debate Chris Christie. I mean, he’s so far ahead, he can probably afford just not to show up at the debates, don’t you think?

Peter Trubowitz
Yeah, And certainly that argument is being made by some surrogates. On the other hand, Christie is out there calling him a wuss if he doesn’t show up. And I think if there’s any way to get under Trump’s skin, that’s it.

Gideon Rachman
Well, you know, one hates to say that anything as sort of serious and alarming as this is entertaining. But that debate should certainly be something to watch. But OK, let’s take it a stage further. Let’s assume, as I think we both probably do, that he’ll win the nomination. Then you get to the general election. And again, the same New York Times poll that we were both referring to has Biden and Trump neck and neck. And to me, that, if that were the case, that suggests Trump wins, doesn’t he? Because the system is so weighted to pro-Republican states that generally Republicans have been able to win while winning fewer of the votes.

Peter Trubowitz
Yeah. You can certainly make an argument that Trump would win if it was that evenly divided. I’m sceptical, frankly, about Trump’s chances this time, and I say that as someone who back in 2016 thought he had a decent chance of beating Hillary Clinton. I say this, you know, really for two reasons. One of the things that has changed, I think, in the American electorate that I’m not sure these polls are fully picking up, is that our independent voters. They matter. They’ve soured on Trump. These are the voters who basically cost Trump the election in 2020.

The second problem, I think, with all of these indictments . . . Remember, there’s likely to be another one coming later this month in Georgia for charging Trump with trying to interfere with the outcome of the election there in 2020. All of this makes the election more of a referendum on Trump than on Biden. This is something the polls are not picking up yet. And I think Trump would be much better off if the discussion were about Biden’s shortcomings — and clearly the public thinks Biden has some shortcomings — rather than Trump’s shortcomings. Of course, given how deeply divided the United States is right now, the election will, under the best of circumstances, as you’re suggesting, be close. And one can really concoct scenarios where Biden loses in a head to head with Trump.

Just to take this one step further, Gideon, I mean, I would say I think the biggest threat to Biden right now is a potential third-party candidate, should one appear, like if a moderate Republican who decides to throw his hat in the ring. Or, you know, Joe Manchin has teased or flirted with the idea. Senator from West Virginia, Democrat of running. I think the problem with that for Biden is it would eat into his margins and not Trump’s by picking up swing voters and independent voters, which could really scuttle Biden’s chances. So I think Trump could win the election. But as they say down in Texas, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. I still think right now it’s Biden’s to lose.

Gideon Rachman
And do you have a kind of sense of foreboding about the coming year or do you think the American system is robust enough, used enough to the craziness of all sorts to be able to ride out this unbelievable sort of unprecedented election?

Peter Trubowitz
I’d like to think so, but frankly, I’m not sure. I mean, I think a lot really depends on how this case plays out, how fair it looks, how airtight the case is, and how far Trump is willing to go to win — and let’s put “wins” in quotation marks — in the court of public opinion. I would say also how much his followers are willing to risk in supporting him. And it’s that last one that worries me the most. I mean, one question is, frankly, what lesson Trump’s hardcore followers have drawn from all those that have now been successfully prosecuted for breaching the Capitol on January 6, 2021? I mean, this is an unbelievable stress test for any political system, for the American political system. And I think given what we have already experienced back in January 2021, I don’t think we should, you know, rule out the possibility that there will be violence and that even if Trump is the candidate and Trump loses, that everything will be orderly.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And last question, Peter. I mean, you’re also a specialist in international relations. What do you think this does to America’s ability to function as, you know, the world’s superpower over the next year? Do you think the likes of Biden and Sullivan and Blinken can just get on with the job? Or is America increasingly gonna be . . . have a big question mark over any of its actions internationally?

Peter Trubowitz
Well, I think, you know, the Biden foreign policy team will continue on the path that they’re on. But I think the larger question here that you’re raising is kind of what does this do to American power and leadership? And I think, the indictment, to my mind, it strengthens and weakens American leadership at the same time. Here’s what I mean by that. On the one hand, I think it sends a very powerful signal internationally; that in America no one is above the law. This is a pretty unusual event, and it speaks, I think, to America’s strengths, to America’s liberal democracy. On the other hand, having said that, I think the fact that so many rallied to Trump’s defence reminds America’s friends, as well as its adversaries, that Trump and Trump’s America First following remain a pretty powerful political force in the United States. So I think there’s a lot at stake here domestically, to be sure, but also internationally. You know this very well, Gideon, and you’ve written about this, that the question in so many international leaders’ minds is whether Biden is just an interlude to Trump or to a continuation of America First in some other Republican leader’s hands. And I think in a way, this indictment will focus international opinion, international leaders, allies and adversaries on this very question.

Gideon Rachman
OK, Peter. Well, that’s a big open question and one we’ll, I’m sure, discuss in the coming months. But for now, thank you very much for joining me.

Peter Trubowitz
Gideon, great to be with you. Enjoyed it very much.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Professor Peter Trubowitz of the London School of Economics ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening and please join us again next week.

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