JASPER, Ind. — About a week after U.S. Sen. Mike Braun picked up former president Donald Trump’s endorsement of his bid for Indiana’s Republican gubernatorial nomination, I asked him this:
“If Trump is convicted of a crime, does that make his endorsement a problem?”
Sen. Braun responded, “There’s a political intertwining. You look at all the venues and almost all Republicans will say that it has a political underpinning. Whether those indictments get parlayed into a conviction, I’m just extrapolating what I see Republican primary voters are doing. I don’t think that makes much difference.”
Braun is facing five Republicans for the nomination next May. He added, “I can tell you that every one of my opponents would have loved to have the endorsement in a state like Indiana.”
The former president is facing 91 felony charges, which is unprecedented. And what is unescapable is that across the GOP spectrum, these charges are considered “political,” as if they were simply cooked up by Democrats in Washington and Atlanta.
In a normal world, an indictment would derail, if not end a political career. In 1924, Indiana Gov. Warren McCray was convicted of wire fraud. Three years later, Gov. Ed Jackson was indicted on a bribery charge connected with the Ku Klux Klan’s takeover of the Indiana Republican Party. He was not convicted due to the statute of limitations, but both men’s political careers ended in disgrace.
In 1984, Democrat Fort Wayne Mayor Win Moses was indicted on campaign finance allegations and upon conviction, left office for 11 days until city precinct officials reinstated him to office. Republicans quickly defined him as a “mayor with convictions.” Three years later, he was defeated for reelection by Republican Paul Helmke.
More recently, the Republican mayor of Portage, James Snyder, was convicted of bribery and is facing a 21-month sentence handed down in 2021.
Two state legislators — Ways & Means Chairman Sam Turpin in 1997 and, last week, former State Rep. Sean Eberhart — were indicted. The most serious charge against Turpin was dropped in 1999. Eberhart has accepted a plea deal and is awaiting sentencing. Both of these Republicans declined to seek reelection after these probes began.
Are Trump’s indictments “political?”
They certainly have had political implications. After each of the four tranches of indictments, his poll numbers improved, and he is the overwhelming frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
But to call these charges “political” is dubious.
Last June, Trump was indicted for keeping and not returning top secret documents. Throughout 2021, the National Archives sought to recover from the former president a number of document considered U.S. property under the Presidential Records Act. He turned over 15 boxes in January 2022, but the FBI recovered more than 100 top secret documents stored in a Mar-a-Lago ballroom and near toilets. The seven counts include conspiracy to obstruct, willful retention of documents and false statements.
Last August, Trump was indicted on four counts related to his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “The attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was an unprecedented assault on the seat of American democracy,” said Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith. “It was fueled by lies.”
Last week in a deposition leaked by defense attorneys, Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, who had pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the DOJ, recounted a conversation with Trump aide Dan Scavino: “He said to me … we’re not going to leave.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said ‘Well, the boss’, meaning President Trump ... is not going to leave under any circumstances. We are just going to stay in power.’”
Also last August, Trump and 18 allies were indicted by a Fulton County, Ga., grand jury on criminal racketeering charges. According to the Associated Press: The nearly 100-page indictment details dozens of acts by Trump or his allies to undo his defeat, including beseeching Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to find enough votes for him to win the battleground state; and appoint a new slate of electoral college electors favorable to Trump.
“The indictment alleges that rather than abide by Georgia’s legal process for election challenges, the defendants engaged in a criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result,” Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
Last March, Trump was indicted in New York on 34 counts related to hush money payments made to the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels.
Will Trump’s endorsement come back to bite Sen. Braun?
Trump’s 2020 election fraud trial is scheduled for March 4, 2024 in Washington. His Manhattan trial is scheduled for March 25. His classified document case is scheduled for May 20 in Miami.
The only historic parallel I can find is after Gov. Jackson won in 1924 and the Klan dominated the General Assembly, a year later KKK Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted of murder. Over the next two years many other Klansman were exposed by the press and forced out of office on a host of charges. Klan membership in Indiana crashed from 250,000 in 1924 about to 4,000 by 1930.
Republican House Speaker Harry G. Leslie, who was backed by the Klan for that post but blocked it on issues ranging from committee assignments to eliminating Catholic schools, won the 1928 governor’s race with 51%.
Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.