Just as Republican voters in the crucial early states get ready to choose their presidential nominee next year, another spectacle may be taking place in the country’s biggest city that could affect the outcome of the election: the trial of Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Judge Juan Merchan set a Dec. 4 date for the next hearing in the Manhattan district attorney’s case against Trump. The former president pleaded not guilty to the indictment accusing him of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records as part of a scheme to shield the electorate from information about past alleged affairs.
Prosecutors pushed for the trial to start in January, while Trump’s defense team requested that it begin “later in the spring” next year.
If the prosecution gets its way, the country would get a split screen of Trump fighting to prove his innocence in New York while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold their nominating contests on Feb. 5 and Feb. 13.
On one hand, a trial could greatly limit how much campaigning Trump might be able to do in the closing weeks of those races. On the other, it might offer him a substantial megaphone and media attention that would greatly overshadow the campaigning of his chief rivals.
Both Trump allies and critics suggested that they see the latter as the more likely outcome.
“This entire primary is now guaranteed to be completely dominated by Trump earned-media-wise,” a Republican strategist supportive of Trump said. “Probably the best-case scenario for him, timing-wise.”
“It was already extremely tough to effectively attack Trump from the right, and now I think it just became basically impossible,” this person added. “How can you effectively land a shot in a way that the base will accept as Democrats are literally trying to put this guy in jail over BS charges?”
A national Democratic operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the colliding storylines, said news that the Manhattan case will at a minimum drag out through the winter was bad news not for Trump, but for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who consistently polls as Trump’s leading rival for the GOP nomination — and the rest of the Republican field.
“DeSantis’ worst nightmare is the fact that he’s going to have to spend the next nine months answering questions about how he feels about Donald Trump’s indictment,” this person said, adding that the GOP “hasn’t demonstrated a single inkling that they’re willing to drive a wedge with him.”
“Because we all know the overwhelming base of the Republican Party right now are MAGA voters, and you can’t alienate them.”
An official with the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC did not directly address the impact of the primary calendar’s clashing with a trial but said, “Should Gov. DeSantis decide to heed the growing calls from the never-back-down grassroots movement to run for president, he is showing strength in early voting states and would win.”
Still, the fact that Trump’s legal team is pushing for a spring start date for the trial could suggest he wants to get through the early states before he is on trial.
Merchan described the Trump legal team’s spring request as “reasonable,” according to a court transcript, but added, “The message I would like to deliver is we would like to move ahead as expeditiously as possible, without undue delay.”
Manhattan is not the only jurisdiction where Trump may face legal jeopardy by the time the primary calendar kicks off. Legal experts have said allegations that Trump tried to overturn Georgia’s election results, incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and mishandled classified documents — which are the subjects of investigations in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. — are far more serious than the charges he faces in Manhattan.
Should Trump be hindered from campaigning as the early state contests near, the Democratic operative noted, he would still be able to get attention in cities like Des Moines and Davenport, Iowa.
“Donald Trump can get on the phone with reporters and get the local Iowa TV station sound bites and still reach Iowa voters if he isn’t there physically,” the Democratic operative said. “Donald Trump doesn’t have to do the glad-handing and kissing the babies in the same way that, like, Ron DeSantis or Tim Scott does.”
It would not be the first time a Trump trial has clashed with the opening presidential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. In February 2020, Trump’s first impeachment trial kept a handful of Democratic senators who were running for president in Washington and off the campaign trail as the vote neared. The trial began in mid-January, and Trump was acquitted on Feb. 5, 2020, two days after the Iowa caucuses.
But those senators were not the ones on trial; the high-profile nature of the proceedings instead offered senators a large earned-media opportunity to show off their roles in the trial.
Of course, none of their campaigns succeeded against Joe Biden. The prevailing wisdom is Trump, even though he is the one in legal peril, could face a better fate — at least in the primaries.
“I think this makes it even more likely Trump wins [the] primary,” said former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican and NBC News contributor. “It paralyzes other candidates.”