On Tuesday afternoon, former President Donald Trump is scheduled to be arraigned at a federal courthouse in Miami. Federal prosecutors indicted him last week for keeping classified documents at his Florida resort after he left office, mishandling them and obstructing government efforts to get them back. It’s a hugely significant moment for Trump, who just became the first former president to be indicted on federal charges. But it’s also consequential for President Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival, who is in a potentially tricky position as prosecutors in his administration’s Department of Justice move forward with the case against Trump.
To be clear — there is no evidence that Biden is pulling the strings behind the prosecution of Trump, or that he even has insight into what’s going on within the investigation. White House sources said they found out about Trump’s indictment through news reports, and when Trump announced his candidacy for president last November, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed an independent special counsel, Jack Smith, to take over the ongoing investigations into Trump, so there would be less risk of political influence.
But there’s a reason Trump is holding a political rally immediately after his court appearance: It’s inevitable that some people will see the prosecution as politically motivated. In fact, an Ipsos/ABC News poll conducted from June 9-10, just after the indictment became public, found that 47 percent of Americans believed the indictment was politically motivated, while 37 percent said it wasn’t and 16 percent weren’t sure, with a broad partisan gap between Republicans, who generally see the indictment as politically motivated, and Democrats, who don’t. That divide could shape the 2024 race going forward, and result in increasingly different standards for political candidates between voters on different sides of the aisle. And it’s also possible that the unfolding legal drama could further erode trust in institutions like the Department of Justice, particularly among Republicans.
Before the indictments came down, Americans weren’t buying Trump’s claim that the multiple investigations into his potential illegal conduct were “witch hunts.” A Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll conducted in late March — before Trump’s first indictment, when he was charged by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with efforts to disrupt the 2016 election — found that 56 percent of Americans thought the investigations were fair, while 41 percent thought they were a “witch hunt.” And an AP-NORC poll conducted in April found that identical shares of Americans (57 percent) believed that the charges filed in New York were politically motivated and were justified.
Initial polling conducted over the weekend shows a similar picture: Many Americans think the indictment was politically motivated, but also think Trump should have been charged. The Ipsos/ABC News poll found that although a plurality of Americans think the federal indictment was politically motivated, a similar plurality (48 percent) agree that Trump should have been charged in the case, while 35 percent said he should not, and 17 percent said they didn’t know. According to the poll, 61 percent of Americans also think the charges are serious, while only 28 percent think they aren’t. Another poll conducted last week by YouGov/CBS News found that respondents were evenly split over whether they were more worried about security concerns related to Trump’s possession of the documents (38 percent) or whether they were more worried about political motivations (38 percent).
Predictably, though, Republicans are consistently much more likely to see political motivations behind the investigations. Just as the vast majority (86 percent) of Republicans in that AP-NORC poll agreed that Bragg’s indictment of Trump was politically motivated, the Ipsos/ABC News poll found a wide partisan split on the federal indictment. A broad majority (80 percent) of Republicans think the indictment was politically motivated, according to that poll, and the YouGov/CBS News poll found similarly that 76 percent of Republican primary voters were more concerned that the indictment was politically motivated. Perhaps even more noteworthy, the YouGov/CBS News poll found that 80 percent of Republican primary voters think Trump should be able to serve as president, even if he’s convicted in the classified documents case.
Those numbers among Republicans aren’t likely to be too worrying for Biden — after all, he wouldn’t be counting on those voters anyway. And there is a kernel of potential good news for Biden in the Ipsos/ABC News poll: More than one-third (38 percent) of Republicans think the charges against Trump are serious, which could create some room for movement.
But there are also significant risks. Separate from the electoral consequences, the investigation could erode trust in the Department of Justice, particularly among Republicans. Trust in institutions overall has been declining for years, and Trump’s criticisms of the U.S. intelligence services during his presidency — especially as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was unfolding — were followed by a substantial decrease in trust in the intelligence services among Republicans. A Gallup poll conducted in 2022 found a 50-percentage-point gap between Democrats and Republicans who said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was doing an “excellent” or “good” job (79 percent vs. 29 percent, respectively) and a 31-percentage-point gap between Democrats and Republicans who said the same about the Central Intelligence Agency (69 percent vs. 38 percent, respectively). That’s a remarkable decline for Republicans: As recently as 2019, 48 percent of Republicans said that the FBI was doing an “excellent” or good job, down from 59 percent in 2014.
That downward trend was likely driven, at least in part, by Mueller’s investigation. Mueller was a former FBI director, and the FBI was a frequent target for Republican criticism during Trump’s presidency. So it’s plausible that the Department of Justice could see a similar decline in trust — and it’s not starting from an especially promising place among Republicans. According to that 2022 Gallup poll, the partisan gap on DOJ is already wide, with 58 percent of Democrats saying the agency is doing an “excellent” or “good” job, compared to only 24 percent of Republicans. Over the past few years, Republicans’ confidence in the criminal justice system has also fallen, too.
So even if Biden is able to skirt political harm as a result of Trump’s federal indictment, trust in the justice system could ebb even further, particularly among Republicans — and if Republicans’ lingering skepticism about the intelligence services is any guide, that trend could be very hard to reverse.