WASHINGTON — Since long before he entered the White House, former President Donald J. Trump has been an any-publicity-is-good-publicity kind of guy. In fact, he once told advisers, “There’s no bad press unless you’re a pedophile.” Hush money for a porn star? Evidently not an exception to that rule.
And so, while no one wants to be indicted, Mr. Trump in one sense finds himself exactly where he loves to be — in the center ring of the circus, with all the spotlights on him. He has spent the days since a grand jury called him a potential criminal milking the moment for all it’s worth, savoring the attention as no one else in modern American politics would.
He has blitzed out one fund-raising email after another with the kind of headlines other politicians would dread, like “BREAKING: PRESIDENT TRUMP INDICTED” and “RUMORED DETAILS OF MY ARREST” and “Yes I’ve been indicted, BUT” — the “but” being but you can still give him money. And when it turned out that they did give him money, a total of $4 million by his campaign’s count in the 24 hours following his indictment, he trumpeted that as loudly as he could too.
Rather than hide from the indignity of turning himself into authorities this week, Mr. Trump obligingly sent out a schedule as if for a campaign tour, letting everyone know he would fly on Monday from Florida to New York, then on Tuesday surrender for mug shots, fingerprinting and arraignment. In case that were not enough to draw the eye, he plans to then fly back to Florida to make a prime-time evening statement at Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by the cameras and microphones he covets.
Never mind that any defense attorney worth the law degree would prefer he keep quiet; no one who knows Mr. Trump could reasonably expect that. He has already trashed the prosecutor (“degenerate psychopath”) and the judge in the case (“HATES ME”) and absent a court-issued gag order surely will continue to. His public comments could ultimately be used against him in a court of law, but to him that hardly seems like a reason to stay silent.
“The trick, of course, is to take up all the air — demand all the attention, all the time, make everything, including his own indictment, into an opportunistic moment,” said Gwenda Blair, author of “The Trumps,” the definitive multigenerational biography of the former president’s family. So far, she added, he has done so “by combining exaggerated hyperbole with a claim to ultimate patriotism and religious zeal — quite the ultimate power package.”
By treating the case as a spectacle, rather than a serious issue, he may discredit it, at least in the eyes of his own supporters. Rather than hang his head in shame, as many facing the possibility of prison might, he frames it as just another Trumpian drama in a life filled with them, the latest reality show cliffhanger — will he get off or will his enemies get him?
But the ratings-obsessed star’s need for the limelight invariably will draw it away from other issues of major import. The United States is in the middle of a nuclear-edged clash with Russia in Ukraine and Moscow has just arrested an American reporter, provoking another hostage crisis. Taiwan’s president is visiting the United States at a moment of bristling tension with Beijing. Just Friday, America’s top general warned of the increasing convergence of a hostile Chinese-Russian-Iranian axis.
The indictment comes “at the exact moment when our military and economic power is being profoundly challenged by our adversaries,” said Heather A. Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based organization focused on trans-Atlantic relations. “From a national security perspective, we need to keep our eye on the ball. But unfortunately, our gaze on Tuesday will be on our own domestic turmoil.”
For President Biden, who has assiduously avoided commenting on Mr. Trump’s legal travails, the first criminal prosecution of a former commander in chief will surely make it that much harder to generate interest in his dutiful speeches promoting the latest bridge project or other achievements he hopes to tout as he prepares to kick off a re-election campaign.
In today’s sizzle-saturated media environment, White House officials understand perfectly well that an incumbent president doing his job can hardly compete for attention with a former president possibly doing time. Instead, they hope the electorate appreciates a leader who ignores the Sturm und Drang to focus on matters like the economy, health care and national security.
In some ways, Mr. Biden faces the challenge that President Gerald R. Ford did when he decided to pardon his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, in the Watergate scandal. One of Mr. Ford’s advisers asked the Watergate prosecutor how long it would take to bring Mr. Nixon to trial if he were indicted and was told as long as a year. To Mr. Ford, it seemed too costly to have the country absorbed by a former president in the dock for so long.
But those were different times and different presidents. Mr. Nixon had resigned in disgrace, his party had abandoned him and he grudgingly offered a measure of contrition when pardoned, even if not nearly enough for many. There was a sense of a chapter closing. Mr. Trump feels anything but contrite and, instead of sliding into exile, is mounting a comeback campaign with the support of many in his party.
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Mr. Biden vowed long ago not to pardon Mr. Trump and could not do so anyway in a state case like the one in New York or the election case being investigated in Georgia; moreover, it remains unthinkable at this point that he would entertain the notion in the two federal inquiries still underway.
While Mr. Ford sought national healing and Mr. Nixon effectively accepted the point, Mr. Trump feeds division. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the danger now is a “partisan overhang” that makes it even more difficult for the parties to come together on important issues like raising the debt ceiling.
“Things were already extremely partisan and polarized, particularly with the House, and I think this just exacerbates it and everything now will take on even more of a tinge,” he said. “It might increase the odds that House committees go after the president and his family or other members of his administration.”
It is possible, of course, that America has seen so much Trump dramaturgy over the years that this has become the new normal and it may not upend the political system as much as might be expected. So far, at least, the indictment has not resulted in the sort of mass demonstrations Mr. Trump seemed to be calling for.
If there is no other indictment, and this case devolves into the usual series of motions and hearings and other preliminary skirmishes, it may not be as captivating until a trial actually opens, which could be months away. And if that is the case, some of Washington’s old hands say, Mr. Biden and Congress could still focus on the business at hand.
“As much as Trump and his team are going to try and make everything all about him, I believe that there is still enough of a governing coalition on the Hill that members will manage to get at least the bare necessities done,” said Jim Manley, a former senior adviser to Senate Democrats.
“While the Trump sycophants in the House are going to make a lot of noise and throw up a lot of smoke,” he added, “I don’t foresee Congress blowing past the debt limit, for instance, because of Trump-caused chaos post indictment.”
Mr. Trump’s appetite for attention has been fundamental to his identity for decades. As a celebrity developer, he happily played out his marital issues and affairs in the New York tabloids; his 1990 split with his first wife Ivana made the front page 11 days in a row. He loved making cameo appearances in movies and television shows from “Sex and the City” to “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” He slapped his name on everything from hotels, golf courses and towers to steaks, bottled water and neckties.
As president, he appeared on camera far more often than his predecessors, rarely missing an opportunity to make the story of the day about himself. During his first Senate impeachment trial, for abuse of power by pressuring Ukraine’s government to investigate Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump suggested he would show up on the Senate floor to make his case himself, to the horror of lawyers who managed to talk him out of it.
“The most unique thing about the former president is that he values the image surrounding an event more than its tangible quality,” said Michael D’Antonio, another Trump biographer. “The moment will pass, but the article, videotape, photo, or book will remain. That’s what he’ll care about more — unless of course he goes to prison.”
But Barbara A. Res, who worked for Mr. Trump for 18 years as an executive at his development company and later broke with him, does not think Mr. Trump expects to be found guilty. “He’s incapable of believing that he’s wrong,” she said. And she doubted he would comply even with a gag order.
“To be honest, nobody tells Donald what to do. Really,” Ms. Res said. A judge, she said, may hesitate to enforce a contempt of court order. “Even people that hate Trump or dislike Trump would probably think it was not a good idea to put him in jail for contempt of a gag order,” she said. And so, she concluded, “He will not shut up.”