Even with these admissions, convicting Trump wouldn’t be simple, experts note: the Justice Department lost a similar case against Democrat John Edwards, when it charged him with hiding payments to his mistress in the 2008 campaign. Trump could argue the payments were intended not to influence the campaign but to prevent embarrassment for his family, and he could also insist, as he did in a Reuters interview this week, he assumed the maneuvers were legal because his attorney told him so.
But despite those hurdles, with the evidence prosecutors have already collected it is likely they would indict anyone else in Trump’s position, says University of California (Irvine) law professor Richard Hasen, an expert in campaign finance law. “On these set of facts I would not be surprised to see an indictment,” Hasen says, “if he were not the president.”
That qualification creates the second condition for the 2020 storm. The Southern District prosecutors are unlikely to challenge the Justice Department’s previous determinations that a sitting president can’t be indicted. That means Trump could not be prosecuted until he leaves office. Since the statute of limitations on the campaign finance violations expires in 2021, voters likely will go to the polls in 2020 knowing that if Trump is defeated he could face trial and conceivably (though less likely) jail time, and that if he wins four more years he’s home free. If Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation ultimately accuses Trump of any crimes, a similar equation might apply.
Republicans, characteristically, have already signaled they will shrug off the campaign finance allegations against Trump. In 2018, the GOP was swept from its House majority—with Democrats winning the total House popular vote by a greater margin than Republicans did in their 1994 or 2010 landslides—in part because voters felt they would not constrain or limit Trump. Yet Republicans have universally dismissed these new charges against Trump. In the process, they have again provided Democrats a resonant symbol that a Republican Congress will not impose any accountability on Trump, no matter the provocation. In 2020, that argument could prove as powerful in such places as Maine and Colorado, two Democratic-leaning states where Republicans are defending Senate seats, as it did in white-collar suburban House districts nationwide in 2018.
Democrats face more nuanced decisions. Democratic audiences are sure to press the 2020 candidates, once they start announcing early next year, to indicate whether they would prosecute Trump if they beat him. It won’t be too long until a crowd in Iowa or New Hampshire flips the gender in Trump’s derisive chant about Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up.”