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Trump's wild year: Criminal charges set him up for the big house — or the White House

While Trump's trials threaten his liberty and property, they also have helped put him on the verge of becoming the first Republican to win three straight presidential nominations.
George Wylesol for NBC News

A year ago, former President Donald Trump was at the low point of his roller-coaster political career.

When Trump announced his bid to win back the White House on Nov. 15, 2022, his hold on the party looked more tenuous than ever, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rattling a saber newly sharpened by winning re-election.

Trump's hand-picked candidates had just flamed out in midterm Senate races, depriving the GOP of a majority, and he took blame for Republicans underperforming expectations in the House — even as they wrested control of the chamber from Democrats.

By December, as he stared into a future of high-stakes criminal and civil trials, it was clear to allies that he was having trouble convincing donors to contribute to the web of political committees funding his campaign and legal defense. Trump's critics inside the Republican Party thought they detected the odor of blood in the water.

What a difference a year makes. If these tribulations have proved a nuisance for Trump, the trials have been a political boon for him — at least within the Republican Party. GOP voters, and many of their elected representatives, rally around him each time he faces new legal action. So, while the trials threaten his liberty and property, they also have helped put him on the verge of becoming the first Republican to win three straight presidential nominations.

"I'm pleased, more than pleased, with where we are based on where I thought we would be a year ago," Trump campaign senior adviser Susie Wiles said before he took the stage at a rally in Durham, New Hampshire, Dec. 15.

What keeps her up at night now, she said, is "complacency."

Indictments boosted Trump politically

The small circle of advisers running Trump's campaign like to point to his February visit to East Palestine, Ohio, as a pivotal political moment for his bid to win back the Oval Office. Near the site of a train derailment that resulted in the release of toxic chemicals, Trump harshly criticized President Joe Biden for not doing enough to help residents.

But public opinion surveys of Republican voters demonstrate that his most potent boost came in April, shortly after a Manhattan grand jury indicted him on charges related to hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Before that, DeSantis was showing strength in some state polls and at the national level, gaining ground on Trump without having launched his own campaign.

A national Reuters/Ipsos poll in mid-March put Trump at 44%, with DeSantis at 30% and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at 3%.

By the first week of April, a Reuters/Ipsos survey found Trump at 58%, with DeSantis at 21%, Haley at 1% and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy at 1%. Trump's lead over his nearest competitor, DeSantis, had grown from 14 percentage points to 37 percentage points.

Since then, Trump has been indicted in Florida on federal charges that he illegally retained classified documents from his time in the White House. He's been indicted in federal court in Washington, D.C., on charges related to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And he has been indicted in Georgia on charges related to his efforts to upend his loss to Biden in that state.

Each of the criminal cases carries the possibility of prison time if he is convicted, but it's not clear that any of them will wrap up before next year's election and there's nothing preventing a felon from being elected president.

In addition, Trump's company has been fined in New York for running a tax-fraud scheme, he is embroiled in a civil fraud trial in the state and a jury found him liable for sexually abusing and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll — who is pursuing a second case against him. A federal appellate court has allowed civil suits connected to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol to go forward, and Colorado's highest court ruled this month that he is ineligible to appear on the primary ballot because judges determined his actions in the wake of the 2020 election amounted to insurrection under the 14th Amendment.

Wiles described the avalanche of criminal and civil proceedings as a "scheduling nightmare" for Trump's team. But they have proved to be a recurring dream politically. At the very basic level, each new development robs Trump's rivals of the oxygen candidates need to build their profiles with voters. But more than that, Trump has forced them to choose sides — to stand with him or what he describes, without evidence, as a coordinated Biden-driven plot to defeat him by trial.

When DeSantis criticized Trump over the hush-money allegations in March, there was a swift backlash from the former president's allies. The lesson Trump's opponents took from that was that they would suffer within the party for taking him to task, even if his legal problems might create uncertainty about his viability in a general election.

DeSantis is clearly frustrated by that dynamic — to the point that he's accused Democrats of trying to help Trump win the nomination.

"They’re doing all this stuff to basically solidify support in the primary for him, get him into the general, and the whole general election’s going to be all this legal stuff,” DeSantis said last week.

“It’s unfair. They’re abusing power, 100%,” DeSantis said. “But the question is, is that going to work? I think they have a playbook that unfortunately will work, and it will give Biden or the Democrat, whoever, the ability to skate through this thing.”

Rivals say Trump can't beat Biden

Trump's Republican rivals have so far failed to persuade a majority of primary voters to dump him. In part, that's because they haven't been able to prosecute a convincing case — the one DeSantis is making — that he is destined to lose to Biden again if he is nominated.

An NBC News survey in mid-November showed Trump leading DeSantis 58% to 18% nationally, with Haley rising at 13%. New Hampshire is the only state where polling suggests any other candidate is within shouting distance of Trump — Haley trailed him by about 15 points in two December surveys in the state.

What is perhaps even more striking, though, is Trump's level of support in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Biden. In June, an NBC poll showed Biden leading Trump by 4 points, 49% to 45%, nationally among registered voters. In November, Trump led by 2 points, 46% to 44%. Polls of swing states suggest a tight contest, too.

Trump's domination of Republican competitors in 2023, combined with the lack of evidence that his nomination would doom the party in the general election, has led to a sense of resignation among some in the GOP who wanted to move in a new direction.

“It feels like in July I’ll be wearing a f---ing MAGA hat,” one DeSantis supporter said at the Republican debate in Miami in November. “It seems inevitable.”

This isn't the first time adversity has benefited a candidate in the primary, even as members of the party worry that the very source of it could hurt him in a general election.

When Iran took American hostages in 1979, a rally-around-the-flag effect helped President Jimmy Carter stave off a primary challenge from then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. In the short term, as Americans broadly approved of Carter's handling of the situation, he opened up a massive 24-point lead over his top Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, the December before the 1980 election. But Reagan ended up winning.

Two key differences now: Trump’s own actions are at the center of his adversity, and Carter never faced the prospect of felony convictions.

The Carter-Reagan example suggests that politics can be a volatile business. Some Republicans have repeatedly argued that their party is doomed if Trump is the nominee.

“We simply cannot expect that someone who is facing this number of criminal trials, and, quite frankly, the conduct that underlies those charges, can be a viable fall election candidate against Joe Biden,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" in August. Christie has made the same case this fall to voters all across New Hampshire, where he has centered his campaign, and on television screens around the country.

If DeSantis and Christie are right, they haven't convinced Republican voters to dump Trump yet. If anything, Trump is stronger than he was a year ago.