Democrats Celebrate and Fear the Indictment of a ‘Chaos Machine’

The satisfaction is nearly universal, but comes with a queasy aftertaste: Democrats are relishing the possibility that Donald J. Trump will get his comeuppance at last. But when the mocking laughter fades, in its place remains a much more lasting anxiety. What will this do to the country?

While President Biden and his top allies have largely stayed silent about Mr. Trump’s indictment, rank-and-file Democrats were far more eager to talk, responding with a mix of jubilation and deep apprehension about how the federal prosecution of a former president and current White House candidate could convulse American politics.

Interviews this week with more than 60 Democratic members of Congress, state legislators, liberal activists and party officials found near-universal agreement that Mr. Trump deserved to face federal charges for his handling of classified documents, but a notable divide over whether the indictment was good for the country or even for their party.

“I don’t want to see this chaos machine do any more damage to the country, to hurt any more people,” Representative Greg Landsman of Ohio, a moderate freshman from Cincinnati, said in an interview Tuesday, referring to the former president. “Democrats, Republicans, independents, everyone has to sort of take a disposition of seriousness.”

For years, Democrats have debated the wisdom of prosecuting Mr. Trump for the various crimes they believe he committed. Vice President Kamala Harris, during her presidential campaign, said the Justice Department “would have no choice” but to prosecute Mr. Trump.

Now, the documents indictment serves as a political Rorschach test, coming at the onset of the 2024 presidential campaign in which many Democrats expect a Biden-Trump rematch. Some Democrats are thrilled that the man who has tormented them for seven years may finally be held to account for his norm-breaking actions, but others are fearful that Mr. Trump will again defy political gravity, and that his supporters might respond to the indictment with violence.

Top of mind for many Democrats is the possibility of another outbreak of civil unrest resembling the riot by Mr. Trump’s supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. While Mr. Trump’s first appearance in federal court on Tuesday took place without problems outside the building, there is no shortage of Democrats who predict that at some point, Mr. Trump’s candidacy will lead to more chaos.

“I’m worried about what will happen in 2024,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. What we saw on Jan. 6, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it.”

David Walters, a former governor of Oklahoma, said that given the evidence in the documents case, an indictment had to move forward — despite the possibility that Mr. Trump’s supporters could foment violence.

“The long-term damage to the nation and our system of justice of not acting far outweighs the political and safety risk,” Mr. Walters said. “We have an evil force in our midst that has to be confronted.”

The tone was more buoyant last weekend at the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s annual convention in Green Bay. There, Representative Mark Pocan sprinkled his speech with celebratory quips comparing Mr. Trump’s legal travails with recent Democratic triumphs in the state.

His biggest applause line was: “Indictments, like impeachments, apparently come in pairs for crooked ex-presidents. Happy indictment weekend, my friends.

In North Carolina, Shelia Huggins, a Durham lawyer who is a member of the Democratic National Committee, spent 50 minutes reading the indictment aloud on her YouTube livestream Monday. She stopped about halfway. “I need a break,” she said. “That was a lot.”

The indictment itself served as a conversation starter for Democrats across the political spectrum. They have so many questions: Will the charges that Mr. Trump mishandled national security secrets finally be the thing that separates him from his hard-core supporters? Does the indictment make it more or less likely Mr. Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee? What would happen if he were convicted and still running next year?

“I can’t see putting a former president, along with his Secret Service team, in a corrections facility,” said Mary Moe, a former Montana state senator. “But there has to be some consequence. We’re in uncharted territory here.”

Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, predicted the indictment would be the final straw for Mr. Trump’s political career — a statement that, to be sure, has been made by others many times in the past eight years.

“The political damage to Donald Trump’s chances for another shot at the presidency will overwhelm his candidacy,” Mr. Jacobs said. “There are just too many common-sense, patriotic Americans for this to cut any other way.”

Others are worried about what would happen if Mr. Trump is acquitted.

“If it is substantiated in court and he is not convicted, it will be a hammer blow to already dismally low confidence in government, D.O.J., the courts and the justice system as a whole,” said Liano Sharon, a progressive activist from Michigan.

And still others feared that convicting Mr. Trump could rebound to hurt Mr. Biden’s re-election chances.

“The only political risk is if the indictment and possible conviction of Trump causes him to lose the nomination and Biden has to run against someone else,” said William Owen, a Democratic National Committee member from Tennessee.

The Biden presidential campaign, its closest allies and Democrats who expect to face tight re-election battles next year appear to have collectively decided it is best to say as little as possible and avoid becoming part of any news cycle about the Trump indictment.

The Democratic National Committee produced nine news releases about former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey during his CNN town-hall event on Monday night, but released nothing on Tuesday about Mr. Trump.

Representative Mary Peltola of Alaska, asked Tuesday about the indictment, went out of her way to release as bland of a statement as possible. “I am aware of the most recent indictment that has been issued against former President Trump,” she said. “I will continue to focus on advocating for Alaskans.”

Some Democrats who had been publicly skeptical about prosecuting Mr. Trump in the past are beginning to whisper: Lock him up.

Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, warned days after Jan. 6 of “martyring” Mr. Trump (he later apologized). After Mr. Trump was indicted in Manhattan this year, Mr. Bennett questioned whether the prosecution was “worth it.”

But now he is finally sold on charging Mr. Trump.

“There is simply no way you could read that indictment and think he should escape judgment for such egregious behavior,” Mr. Bennett said on Monday.

Not all Democrats have been swayed by the indictment, however.

Bruce Ledewitz, a veteran of the Gary Hart and Al Gore presidential campaigns who is now a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, has written columns dating to 2019 warning against trying Mr. Trump in court. He counseled Democrats to follow the example of President Gerald Ford, who pardoned his predecessor, the just-resigned Richard Nixon, to spare the country of the trauma of litigating his tenure in office.

“Nobody asked the Ford question: Is this in the best interest of the country?” Mr. Ledewitz said. “Trump could be president and be in prison. I don’t know who thought this would be wise for the country. It’s just not.”

Still other Democrats remain worried about what prosecuting a former president might do to the country’s image overseas — particularly in places with still-developing democracies.

“This is not good for this country in terms of our status around the world,” said Sheikh Rahman, a Georgia state senator who was born in Bangladesh. “Everybody looks to us, the whole world is looking at us, and they’re saying, ‘How could this happen to the United States?’”

Reid J. Epstein covers campaigns and elections from Washington. Before joining The Times in 2019, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Newsday and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Anjali Huynh covers politics for The Times. @anjalihuynh

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