‘A real stress test’: USC experts talk Trump’s third indictment

The trial will reflect the strength of American democracy against the former president’s alleged efforts to stay in power, but it could ultimately benefit his 2024 campaign.

Former President Trump continues to claim the ongoing criminal investigations are acts of politically motivated persecution. (Unsplash)

The United States Department of Justice levied four felony charges against former President Donald Trump Aug. 1 over his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. This is the first time a former president has received such charges, setting the stage for precedent-setting legal arguments surrounding U.S. elections. The Daily Trojan spoke with USC law and politics experts about the indictment’s potential impacts on the 2024 election and the future of American democracy.

“It’s going to be a real stress test of the system,” said Bob Shrum, director of USC’s Center for the Political Future, “to see whether or not the idea that nobody is above the law is actually true in this country, to see whether or not we can defend our democracy.”

The 45-page indictment alleges that Trump led a conspiracy to obstruct Congress from counting and certifying votes Jan. 6, 2021, attempted to replace valid electors with false ones to cast votes in his favor and sustained the conspiracy with lies about the validity of the election process. 

In doing so, Trump and a collection of six co-conspirators disrupted a “bedrock function” of the U.S. government, the indictment read, resulting in four felony charges: conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy against rights. 

Analysts expect Trump’s defense to argue he acted on the genuine belief that he won the election, staking their hopes on an appeal to his first amendment right to free speech, though Shrum called the argument a “red herring.”

“Of course, you can contest an election,” Shrum said, “but you can’t form a conspiracy to send in fake electors to try to derail the process of certifying a presidential election.”

The indictment is the third set of charges Trump has faced thus far, joining an indictment in March related to false business statements Trump allegedly made to cover up hush money paid to two women he had affairs with beginning in 2015. Other charges made then related to retaining classified documents and obstructing their retrieval in early 2023, which will continue to attract attention to the campaign.

“The most worrisome aspect of the indictments is the media coverage that it generates for Trump,” said Fred Cook, director of the USC Center of Public Relations at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. 

The media coverage of the indictments might unwittingly bolster Trump’s campaign, Cook said.

“In my opinion, the media helped get Trump elected the first time. They gave him an enormous airtime space in their publications because people enjoyed reading about him,” Cook said. “It’s so surprising to me that the media is doing the same thing again.”

On the campaign trail, Trump continues to claim the ongoing criminal investigations are acts of politically motivated persecution — an argument that has proved effective in garnering support. Trump is still the clear Republican frontrunner, leading his nearest competitor — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — by 37 percentage points, a poll by The New York Times found. The deluge of charges against him, though, has the potential to turn voters away, Shrum said. Trump currently faces 78 felony charges, with a fourth indictment related to alleged 2020 election interference in Georgia on the horizon.  

The growing number of disillusioned voters is not Trump’s primary concern, said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a teaching professor of public administration and an expert in social media use in participatory democracies.

“It’s important to remember that there are two audiences,” Vertenten said. “His social media currently is aimed at making sure the donations continue to flow and is not concerned with persuading voters who might choose to elect him come next year.”

Between March 30 and April 5, the Trump campaign raked in at least $11 million dollars, a POLITICO analysis found, though the fundraising spike after the second indictment was muted compared to the first. 

A first hearing for the indictment is set for Aug. 28. In keeping with federal law, none of the indictments proceedings will be televised, though some, including House Democrats, argue cameras would promote transparency and trust in the justice system. Cook believes broadcasting the hearing would amount to nothing more than a “spectacle.” 

“[Trump] would probably prefer to be on camera and have the trial be out in the open, but I think there’s a lot of downside to doing something like that,” Cook said.

For now, the “stress test” on American democracy will proceed unseen, though the indictment’s impact is already clear, Vertenten said. 

“We are past the point where the indictment has been brought, and in fact [it] will live forever … whether the MAGA folks like it or not,” Vertenten said. “Winning the trial is not nearly as important as having brought the indictment so that the people who are responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions, including the insurrection, are brought to justice.”

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