Opinion: A Trump indictment would put Republicans in a bind

Photo/Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times / Michael Cohen, right, arrives for his 19th appearance before a grand jury in the Manhattan District Attorney's case against former President Donald Trump on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. Cohen, Donald Trump’s former fixer, is the key witness in a case built around a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels.

It looks increasingly likely that former President Donald Trump will be indicted by Manhattan prosecutors over alleged hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Republican politicians and other party officials who have tried to avoid taking a position on Trump and the 2024 nomination -- the keep-quiet Republicans -- are running out of time. Like it or not, they are going to have to choose sides.

Up to this point, keeping quiet was a viable strategy. Not a very brave one! But politicians are rarely courageous and sometimes problems just solve themselves, so ducking the issue had a logic to it. Taking on Trump would have risked alienating voters and party elites who remain steadfast supporters.

But once there is an indictment, staying neutral is no longer a smart option. The single biggest remaining question about Trump will have been answered, and the problem will no longer solve itself. Trump quite possibly will be a candidate under indictment as the Republican presidential nomination is being decided.

Whatever Trump's countless previous transgressions, a criminal charge is a watershed moment that will be exponentially more difficult for the GOP to dismiss. It also makes more real the possibility of additional indictments on matters more consequential than the potential violation of campaign-finance law likely at issue in the Stormy Daniels case.

Devout Trump voters will remain in the former president's corner no matter what. But there is a significant segment of the Republican electorate, perhaps up to two-thirds of the total, who seem open to other Republican contenders. If enough high-profile Republicans say that having a nominee under indictment would be a disaster for the party, plenty of uncommitted Republicans will accept it, perhaps enough to swing the nomination against him. But if all they hear from Republicans is that Trump is being unfairly persecuted, many of them will commit to the former president for good.

Political nominations are collective decisions, not just individual choices. The more solidarity there is among influential party figures, the more effective they will be. So if only a plurality of prominent Republicans decide to make a public break with Trump, it will still reverberate strongly through the party.

Even if the New York indictment turns out to be a false alarm, it's a reminder to Republicans that there could be bad news coming. And if one prosecutor takes the step of indicting a former president, the chances are that others, who will no longer have to worry about being the first to ever do so, will act as well.

Republicans certainly shouldn't believe the cliché that nothing would scare away Trump voters, a mantra that somehow has survived his failed re-election campaign where it turned out that some things did matter. Yes, Trump's strongest supporters and even most regular Republican voters will continue to vote for Trump and the Republican ticket regardless of his legal predicament. But those who already might have been wavering might not. And losing voters at the margins is a very efficient way of losing elections.