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Trump on Trial?
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Trump on Trial?

Plus: Former GOP Senate candidate Dave McCormick is launching a new PAC, fueling suspicions he’ll run again in 2024.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Weed legalization fight gotten too boring for you? Here’s a new political action committee pushing to open a consciousness-raising new front in the decriminalization policy space: magic mushrooms and other psychedelics. “We have to convince a historically stubborn audience around psychedelics that it’s not the 1960s,” Psychedelic Medicine PAC co-founder Ryan Rodgers tells NBC News this week. “People aren’t going to stare into the sun for their eyes to blow out. People aren’t going to jump off a building. This is about healing trauma.” 

Up to Speed

  •  A Manhattan grand jury will reportedly decide this week whether to bring a felony charge against former President Donald Trump related to an alleged hush money payment paid to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. (More on this below.)
  • A Trump-supporting super PAC filed a state ethics complaint last week against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, accusing him of “leveraging his elected office and breaching his associated duties in a coordinated effort to develop his national profile, enrich himself and his political allies, and influence the national electorate.” Among DeSantis’ alleged malfeasances: continuing to fundraise nationally, touring in support of his new book, and not denouncing national groups that have cropped up with the intent of drafting him to run for president. The complaint relies in part on Florida’s “resign to run” law, which would require DeSantis to resign as governor in order to officially declare his candidacy for president—but which Republicans in the Florida legislature have signaled they’d be open to repealing or amending in the current legislative session, which ends in May.
  • Early voting begins today ahead of next month’s mayoral runoff in Chicago, which pits a centrist pro-police Democrat, Paul Vallas, against county commissioner and progressive champion Brandon Johnson.

Trump: I’m About to Be Arrested

As the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump is never far from the center of the political conversation. But the spotlight may get a lot brighter: The former president may soon face a criminal indictment. Manhattan prosecutors signaled earlier this month that such a move could be near; NBC News reported Friday it could be only days away. Trump himself predicted in a Truth Social post Saturday that he would be “ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK.” (This may have been overwrought: The grand jury reportedly has a final witness to interview Monday and will not vote on whether to bring a charge until after that.)

The basis for the possible charge has nothing to do with Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election—though a Georgia-based investigation into that conduct remains underway—or even his role in the January 6 storming of the Capitol, although a federal special counsel continues to examine that too. Instead, Trump may become the first former president ever charged with a crime thanks to a much smaller scandal: The hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election to keep her from revealing an apparent past affair with Trump.

Back in 2018, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance crimes related to his facilitation of the payment. Court filings in that case showed that Trump’s company had kept false records related to the money, logging them as “legal fees” under a non-existent retainer between Trump and Cohen. Cohen testified that Trump knew about the phony accounting, the basis of the possible charge. In New York, falsifying business records is a misdemeanor, but doing so with intent to commit a second crime—an improper campaign donation, say—can be charged as a felony. 

It should be noted that this would be far from an ironclad case, even with Cohen a cooperating witness. The New York Times characterizes the potential two-step felony charge described above as “an untested and therefore risky legal theory,” and observers right and left largely agree it’s the flimsiest of the possible charges facing the former president. 

Trump responded to the potential indictment in his ordinary way over the weekend: by going fully on the attack. The former president spent his weekend posting up a storm, calling the reported investigation an “Assault on Democracy” and denouncing Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney at its helm, as “A RACIST, SOROS BACKED D.A. WHO LETS MURDERERS, RAPISTS, AND DRUG DEALERS WALK FREE” and who is “taking his orders from D.C.”

Trump repeatedly urged his supporters to “PROTEST” and “TAKE OUR NATION BACK” in the days ahead.

Trump and his political machine also took the opportunity to raise the heat on his likely presidential primary opponents, casting the possible forthcoming indictment as a litmus test for their loyalty to their voters. A Saturday email blast from his political action committee, MAGA Inc, tracked which of those potential opponents had spoken up on his behalf over the weekend and which had remained silent. On Sunday, the Trump campaign “War Room” account tweeted that “history will judge” those who had yet to speak up on the former president’s behalf. “Pay attention to which Republicans spoke out against this corrupt BS immediately,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “and who sat on their hands and waited to see which way the wind was blowing.”

Few of Trump’s likely future rivals have said much. Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, told Breitbart the possible prosecution “reeks of the kind of political prosecution that we endured back in the days of the Russia hoax.” And biotech founder Vivek Ramaswamy said an indictment would be a “national disaster” that would “undermine public trust in our electoral system itself.” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told CNN Sunday that the possibility of an indictment is “building a lot of sympathy for the future president.”

Ron DeSantis took a slightly different tack Monday morning. He took a shot at Bragg—“The Manhattan district attorney is a Soros-funded prosecutor … They weaponize their office to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of rule of law and public safety.” But he also lingered on the dirty details of Trump’s alleged behavior:  “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I can’t speak to that.”

Many of the others— Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott—had not yet commented publicly as we published.

While a former president has never been tried for a crime, campaigning for office while under indictment isn’t a particularly uncommon occurrence. In 2018, two Republican congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, were reelected while under indictment for separate campaign finance crimes. (Both subsequently took plea deals and resigned from office, and both were subsequently pardoned by President Trump shortly before he left office.) That same year, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, was reelected shortly after his own corruption trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial. And American history buffs may recall socialist candidate Eugene Debs, who ran for president from prison in 1920.

Prospective GOP Senate Candidate Launches New PAC

Coinciding with the release of his new book, former GOP Senate candidate Dave McCormick is launching a new political action committee, Pennsylvania Rising, aimed at helping GOP candidates running for state office in Pennsylvania and boosting Republican voters’ confidence in mail-in-voting.

McCormick’s initiatives are fueling suspicion that the Army veteran and former hedge fund CEO will run for Senate again in 2024, a presidential year when 23 Senate Democrats are up for reelection, including three-term Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. 

“I feel like I have a lot to offer, and running for the Senate—and hopefully winning—would be one way that I might do that,” McCormick said in an interview with The Dispatch on Friday.

But McCormick, who lost Pennsylvania’s May 17 Republican Senate primary to Trump-endorsed television personality and heart surgeon Mehmet Oz by a 951-vote margin, isn’t ready to make any announcements yet. 

Right now he says he’s focused on the tour for the new book—Superpower in Peril: A Battle Plan to Renew America—and the launch of the PAC, which will support Republicans seeking office in Pennsylvania’s legislature, Supreme Court, and even down to the county commission level. The kinds of Republicans who can “win primaries and win general elections,” he said.

The PAC’s second main objective is to close Democrats’ voter registration gap and boost Republicans voters’ confidence in Pennsylvania’s mail-in-ballot laws, namely Act 77, the 2019 law that legalized no-excuse absentee voting. 

The subtext of the mission is to help the Pennsylvania GOP rebound from one of the most disastrous election cycles for the state party in recent memory, when Democrat Josh Shapiro won the governor’s race by 15 points against fringe Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, and Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman bested Oz by 5 points.

In hindsight, the 2022 elections demonstrate how much Pennsylvania Republicans dropped the ball on the mail-in-voting: According to Pennsylvania’s Department of State, Fetterman collected 960,000 mail-in-ballots to Oz’s 234,000. The margin was even more jarring in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, with Shapiro racking in 1 million mail-in ballots to Mastriano’s 187,000. 

“I don’t think it’s a secret. I think Republicans of Pennsylvania—but also nationally—are way behind on mail-in ballots in terms of getting our voters to have confidence in that system,” McCormick said.

But McCormick is taking a wider view too. His new book presents a national plan “for victory in  the races for global supremacy in talent, technology, and data” and lays out a protectionist policy vision for combating Chinese technological and military dominance.

After a bruising midterm cycle when the GOP’s poor candidate quality helped Democrats keep their razor-thin Senate majority, it’s no wonder Republicans are looking to McCormick—a Gulf War veteran, former George W. Bush administration Treasury official, and former CEO of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates who already has one Senate run under his belt.

McCormick was a featured speaker at this year’s National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) winter retreat, and the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund—which spends millions during election cycles on behalf of Republican Senate candidates—is already backing McCormick.

What the rest of Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate field will look like remains an open question. Conservative commentator and third-place finisher in last year’s GOP Senate primary Kathy Barnette has confirmed she won’t run. 

But the elephant in the GOP primary is now Mastriano, who recently told Politico he’s open to running for Senate. NRSC Chairman Steve Daines has already signaled he would not support Mastriano’s candidacy. 

It’s not just D.C.-based Republican leaders who are preemptively rallying behind McCormick.

One Republican official in Pennsylvania said she walked away from one of McCormick’s recent book signings impressed by his foreign policy platform. “China and Russia are looking at us as vulnerable because of weak leadership, and we need someone who knows how to deal with them,” said Jackie Kulback, who chairs both the Cambria County GOP and the Pennsylvania GOP’s southwest caucus. “I can’t think of another human being except David McCormick to be able to do that.”

“Dave is a dream candidate,” Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco said in an interview. 

As for the prospective GOP candidate’s prospective far-right challenger? “I don’t know of a single Republican leader in the state of Pennsylvania who is asking or is anxious for a run for statewide or federal office from state Sen. Doug Mastriano,” DeMarco said.

Eyes on the Trail

  • Marianne the malevolent: There’s nothing like a presidential cycle for dredging up political dirty laundry, and this Politico piece on how Biden challenger Marianne Williamson treated her staff during her short 2020 campaign is bursting with it. A dozen interviews with former staffers, reporter Lauren Egan writes, paint Williamson as “verbally and emotionally abusive,” prone to “unpredictable, explosive episodes of anger,” “foaming, spitting, uncontrollable rage.” Staffers recalled screaming beratings loud enough to attract concerned hotel staff and, in one vivid anecdote, a scene where a frustrated Williamson repeatedly punched a car door until she’d injured her hand, necessitating an urgent-care trip. (Williamson denied most of the report’s allegations.) Read the whole thing here. 
  • All aboard in Ohio: State Sen. Matt Dolan is unlikely to be the only GOP challenger to Sen. Sherrod Brown for long. Bernie Moreno, a Trump-friendly businessman who briefly ran last cycle for the Senate seat eventually won by J.D. Vance, is testing the waters again, with plans to make appearances as a potential candidate at several GOP events in the weeks ahead. As we reported earlier this month, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose is also considering running. And another possible challenger, Rep. Warren Davidson, would also have some substantial backers if he were to enter the race—including the Club for Growth.

Notable and Quotable

Stephen Colbert: “Was there any discussion in the White House about what the blowback would be for approving the Willow oil project? Because people have gotten quite upset about it. I think there’s protesters outside right now.”

Vice President Kamala Harris: “I think that the concerns are based on what we should all be concerned about. But the solutions have to be, and include, what we are doing in terms of going forward, in terms of investments.”
—exchange on The Late Show over the Biden administration’s recent approval of a massive oil drilling project in Alaska, March 15, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.