For Donald Trump, the recriminations were quick. As the first midterm ballot counts upended Republican expectations, fingers quickly pointed at the former president. Former aides publicly undercut him, onetime supporters said he should no longer be the face of the party and fellow Republicans penned political obituaries.
“The voters have spoken and they have said that they want a different leader,” Winsome Earle-Sears, Virginia’s Lieutenant-Governor, told Fox Business Thursday, saying she would no longer support Mr. Trump if he runs again. In 2020, she co-chaired a group called Black Americans to Re-elect President Trump.
“We want to win the White House and we know with Trump we’re so much more likely to lose,” Paul Ryan, a former House speaker, told local media. Mr. Trump, he said, is “kind of a drag on our ticket.”
But late Thursday night, Mr. Trump issued formal notice of the “Special Announcement” scheduled for Nov. 15 at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. He has all but confirmed his intention to announce another presidential campaign.
Mr. Trump has made a political career out of defying expectations and the counsel of those close to him.
But he may have another reason to pursue the presidency. Mr. Trump and his companies are the subject of at least four different legal proceedings. Two of those, by the Department of Justice and Georgia’s Fulton County, remain at the investigation stage, with prosecutors yet to decide whether to indict.
Faced with the prospect of charges that could result in huge fines or even jail time, Mr. Trump may see defensive value in returning to the campaign trail. After all, what prosecutor would dare drag a presidential candidate before the court?
“If you’re announced, then in theory there’s a plus to that,” said Sean Spicer, a former White House spokesman under Mr. Trump.
Judicial authorities have already proceeded with caution on Mr. Trump. In Fulton County, District Attorney Fani Willis temporarily muted her work for several weeks ahead of the midterms, in a bid to avoid accusations of political meddling. Her office, situated a short walk from the state Capitol in Atlanta, has been investigating allegations that Mr. Trump put pressure on Georgia officials to change the results of the 2020 election.
The Department of Justice, meanwhile, has said it will continue to observe a memo sent by William Barr, the U.S. attorney-general under Mr. Trump, who wrote in 2020 that no investigation of a “declared candidate for president or vice-president” should begin without the attorney-general’s “prior written approval.”
It would not be a big step for Mr. Trump to read that as a shield to wield against prosecution, simply by once again declaring his candidacy.
“I do believe the former president and his lawyers may feel being an announced candidate may lessen the opportunity for an indictment,” said Samuel Olens, a Georgia lawyer who served as the state’s attorney-general from 2010 to 2016.
Federal authorities must also grapple with the lack of modern precedent for prosecution of a former president.
“Taking such action would be viewed by many as overtly political,” Mr. Olens said. The Justice Department “would be interested in dotting every i and crossing every t, just to simply be assured that it was the appropriate action.”
That may raise the bar to action. It does not preclude it.
The deference accorded Mr. Trump as a former president has not warded off an FBI search of his property, a move Attorney-General Merrick Garland personally approved. It also did not prevent Letitia James, the state Attorney-General in New York, from winning re-election this week.
“We sent a message, a shot across the bow to the most powerful companies and people who believe that they’re above the law that they are not, and that this Attorney-General will hold them accountable,” she told supporters this week.
Ms. Willis, meanwhile, has continued her work. Less than three weeks before the Nov. 8 midterm vote, a judge overrode the objections of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and ordered him to stand before a Georgia grand jury. A day after the midterms, another judge ordered former House speaker Newt Gingrich to do the same. Mr. Gingrich is expected to appeal.
Ms. Willis has relied in part on evidence uncovered by the House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The committee has issued a subpoena for Mr. Trump and submitted a court filing sketching out how a criminal case could be made against him.
Few expect the Jan. 6 committee to survive the midterm elections, which are likely to install a Republican House majority that can end its work. But control of the House has yet to be determined.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has sought to rediscover the political alchemy that ushered him into the White House in 2016, after a campaign in which he turned repeated setbacks to his own advantage.
“WE WON!” he declared on Truth Social Friday, making unfounded accusations about electoral cheating. “Big Victory, don’t be stupid. Stand on the rooftops and shout it out loud!”
Mr. Spicer, the former spokesman, acknowledged that the midterm vote was disappointing for Republicans, but faulted Democrats for frightening people into voting in defence of abortion and democracy. He also cautioned against extrapolating from midterm election results. If Mr. Trump runs, “it will be his name and his agenda on the ballot,” said Mr. Spicer, who is now a host on Newsmax, a conservative broadcaster favoured by Mr. Trump.
“He has every right to do what he wants to do,” Mr. Spicer said. “It will be up to the grassroots voters and our primary process to decide who the nominee will be.”