WASHINGTON – When Republicans talk about whether Donald Trump will run for president again in 2024, many hasten to add it may depend on a big unknown: his legal troubles.
Could an indicted ex-president still lead a political party?
No one knows, but some Republicans are increasingly discussing the possibility.
Criminal charges would, at the very least, create political problems for Trump, but allies and analysts said they would not necessarily prevent him from campaigning for Republicans in 2022 congressional races and even pursuing another presidential campaign in 2024.
"None of this matters," pollster Frank Luntz said. "It doesn't matter for his decision making or for anyone who votes for him."
He added, "It's just so irrelevant."
If anything, indictments over past business practices might trigger Trump to mount another campaign if only to spite his enemies, some Republicans who spoke to USA TODAY said. The ex-president and his supporters could claim that indictments are the products of a Democratic plot to derail him and his agenda.
Trump suggested as much after the Attorney General's Office in New York state announced that its investigation of certain financial dealings by the Trump Organization had moved from a "civil" matter to a "criminal" one.
In a lengthy written statement referring to himself in the third person, Trump said state prosecutors are "possessed, at an unprecedented level, with destroying the political fortunes of President Donald J. Trump and the almost 75 million people who voted for him."
'If they indict him, I think he will run'
The next presidential election is three years away, and no one knows whether Trump will run again, maybe not even himself. Few if any know whether he will face criminal charges and what those charges might mean for him politically.
Some people close to Trump do not believe indictments would affect his decision one way or the other, certainly as he plans to campaign for like-minded Republicans in 2022 and possibly if he runs himself in 2024.
"It's just going to (tick) him off," said a former Trump administration official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.
The former official and others said they believe Trump would prefer not to run again because he likes his lifestyle at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Some allies said Trump is only teasing a run to keep his name in the news, maintain influence in the Republican Party and raise money.
One thing could change Trump's mind, allies said: an indictment that would trigger his intense need to strike back at his enemies.
"If they indict him, I think he will run," the former official said.
Allies said criminal charges could hurt his fundraising and embolden his political opponents, including Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who say the party needs to get past the volatile ex-president.
An indicted candidate would face major time and financial drains to prepare for a trial, a process that could take years.
Some Trump opponents said he is making statements and planning a rally only to raise money, and he will opt out of another presidential race because he fears another loss.
"His fragile ego couldn't allow him another loss," said Michael Cohen, Trump's former attorney. "So he'll find any excuse whatsoever for him to avoid a 2024 race."
'We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization'
Speculation about Trump's legal future revved up this week after the New York Attorney General's office announced it had told the Trump Organization that its investigation "is no longer purely civil in nature."
"We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity," said spokesman Fabien Levy, working along with the Manhattan district attorney's office in New York City.
New York prosecutors are conducting a tax and bank fraud inquiry that threatens Trump and his business officials.
The former president also faces potential legal troubles in Georgia, where prosecutors are investigating whether he pressured state officials into changing election results that contributed to President Joe Biden's victory.
There are also pending civil lawsuits, including a pair of cases from women who said Trump sexually assaulted them.
Congressional Democrats seek to create a special commission to investigate the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters sought to reverse the election results. A commission investigation could reveal embarrassing details about Trump's actions before and during the riot.
Trump has described these probes as "witch hunts" and "hoaxes."
He and his allies noted that he has been under investigation since he announced in 2015 he was running for president.
None of these investigations led to any indictments. Some led to two impeachments of Trump, one over the insurrection and the other over his efforts to get the nation of Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son.
There was also a critical report from special counsel Robert Mueller on Trump's actions during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
'If you come for the king, you best not miss'
Trump isn't the only one under political pressure over investigations – potential prosecutors face tough choices as well.
Any prosecutor who pursues an indictment against an ex-president needs to have a strong case, legal analysts said. Otherwise, Trump and allies will be able to turn the case into a political weapon.
Trump accused New York Attorney General Letitia James of political motives, given her reported interest in running for governor of the state.
"If you come for the king, you best not miss," said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer. "An indictment alone won’t necessarily hurt Trump with his base, which will view this all as part of a political witch hunt."
Speaking strictly as a legal matter, neither an indictment nor a conviction would prohibit Trump from running again or campaigning for any Republican who wants his help.
"Ironically, you can’t get hired for most government jobs with a felony conviction, but you can be elected president," said Barb McQuade, a former federal prosecutor and now a law professor at the University of Michigan.
Any legal case against Trump must be seen as legitimate if voters are to take it seriously. Some voters, that is.
Trump and his supporters will see any legal action as a political attack and act accordingly, analysts said.
John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said he can see the Trump fundraising email now: "'The Deep State is trying to put me in jail!'"
"On the other hand," Pitney said, "his lawyers will undoubtedly advise him that talking about the case in public will increase his legal jeopardy."
As for future political races, pollster Luntz said Trump probably has a good idea whether he will run again in 2024 but may change his mind repeatedly.
"No one knows except for him," Luntz said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump criminal investigation makes his political future murky