Defendant Trump Has the G.O.P. Just Where He Wants It

It was perhaps inevitable that, with Donald Trump’s historic arraignment taking place in the run-up to Easter Sunday, one of his most zealous disciples, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, would aim to drag Jesus into this mess.

The former president “is joining some of the most incredible people in history being arrested,” the MAGA chaos agent blathered to a conservative news outlet just hours before Mr. Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts related to a hush-money deal with a porn star. “Jesus! Jesus was arrested and murdered by the Roman government!” proclaimed Ms. Greene.

As a lapsed Southern Baptist, I’ll leave it to the more devout to debate whether this comparison qualifies as outright blasphemy or is merely idiotic. Regardless, it was a perfect distillation of Mr. Trump’s longstanding political refrain and current legal defense: He is the faultless victim of political persecution — a righteous martyr beset on all sides by America-hating, baby-eating Democrats and Deep Staters. In the Gospel According to the Donald, any bad thing he is ever accused of is just more proof that the forces of evil are out to get the MAGA messiah.

It’s a great story if you can sustain it. Unless you’re a Republican presidential hopeful not named Donald Trump, in which case being required to shovel this grade of malarkey to please the base is increasingly awkward — at least for anyone hoping to retain a shred of credibility beyond the hard-core MAGAverse.

This uncomfortable reality is actually something for every member of the G.O.P. to think about. Again. Because, if Mr. Trump’s prime-time, post-arraignment remarks on Tuesday were any indication, this is going to be a central theme of his third presidential run — one that promises to relegate everyone else in the party, including those considering a 2024 run themselves, to being minor players in this latest, tawdriest season of “The Trump Show.”

Tuesday night was Mr. Trump’s first chance to address the criminal charges against him — his first real opportunity to counterpunch — since the New York indictment came down. Safely back in the gilded cocoon of Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by American flags and supporters sporting red hats and campaign signs, he delivered a half-hour battle cry that was painfully on brand: a greatest hits of his witch-hunt grievances interwoven with his dark take on how the country is “going to hell” without him. As he tells it, “all-out nuclear World War III” is just around the corner. “It can happen! We’re not very far away from it!” He also suggested that the investigation into his squirreling away sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago could somehow lead to his being executed.

Precisely the kind of responsible rhetoric one likes to hear from a political leader.

It was not one of Mr. Trump’s more compelling speeches. The Mar-a-Lago crowd, while friendly, wasn’t the kind of roaring mass of fans from which Mr. Trump draws energy, and the former president sounded heavily scripted. Even so, the address was impressively offensive in its attacks on the justice system in general and the individuals leading the investigations of Mr. Trump in particular — as well as their families. (Seriously, what was with all the wife bashing?) He sniped about the “racist in reverse” officials out to get him. He went on a bizarre riff about how President Biden had hidden a bunch of documents in Chinatown. And his repeated attacks on the “lunatic” Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing the federal investigations of Mr. Trump, suggest that whole business is really chafing the former president’s backside.

Get ready for more of this magic. As Mr. Trump’s legal troubles heat up, with possibly more indictments to come, these investigations are going to eat at him and distract him. A hefty chunk of his campaign is likely to be an extended whine about his ongoing martyrdom, constantly putting other Republicans in the awkward position of having to defend him. And they won’t really have any choice as he whips his devoted followers into a frenzy over his persecution — and, of course, by extension, theirs.

That is certainly what we have seen happening. Republicans have been lining up to trash the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. It was in no way surprising to see Representative Lauren Boebert comparing the indictment of Mr. Trump to the actions of Mussolini and, yes, Hitler. But one might have expected slightly more from Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely regarded as the biggest threat to Mr. Trump’s 2024 ambitions, than his pathetic vow to refuse to assist any effort to extradite Mr. Trump to New York. Weak, Ron. Very weak.

A long-shot candidate or two, like Asa Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas, may try to distinguish themselves by not smooching Mr. Trump’s backside so sloppily. But this is a risky path that few contenders seem inclined to tread. Having bowed to Mr. Trump so low and for so long, the party has left itself few, if any, good options for dealing with him now.

Anyone looking to lead the G.O.P. beyond its Trump era was already at a disadvantage before the charges. Be it Nikki Haley or Mike Pence or Mr. DeSantis, the political world is busy assessing potential 2024 contenders in Trump terms, obsessing over where they fall on the MAGA spectrum and how delicately they are or are not handling the former president.

Team Trump, meanwhile, is happy to play the martyr card for all it’s worth. They have been boasting about using the former president’s legal troubles to fund-raise and sign up volunteers.

Any day now, look for the campaign to start hawking bracelets asking: WWDTD? (What would Donald Trump do?) Ms. Greene will surely snap up several. What classier, more tasteful Easter present for the MAGA faithful in one’s life?

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