It has become a cliche to say nothing ever sticks to Donald Trump.
Often, that has proved to be the case. Neither scandals such as the Access Hollywood tapes, or impeachment, or allegations of sexual assault from up to 20 women, appeared to dent his appeal to the Republican base. When he was charged over a hush money payment to a former porn star, his reelection campaign amassed millions of dollars in just days.
Yet Trump’s appearance in court this week to answer 37 charges over the retention of classified documents at his Florida estate – some recovered from a bathroom – might be a different case.
The former president is charged with 31 counts of “willfully retaining national defence information” under the Espionage Act, one count of making false statements, and another of conspiracy to obstruct justice. He and a former aide are accused of trying to block investigators. The documents contained information about the defensive abilities of America and other nations, and US nuclear programmes.
It is difficult to underplay the seriousness of the charges leveled at him, under a law passed in 1917 when the US was at war. The Washington Post calculated if the convicted the former president could face a penalty of up to 400 years jail time.
Trump has said he has done nothing wrong, and claimed the charges were aimed not just at him, but at his supporters.
“They’ve launched one witch-hunt after another to try and stop our movement, to thwart the will of the American people,” he told a rally over the weekend. “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you.”
After Trump was charged earlier this year in a separate matter by officials in New York, his Republican rivals for the GOP nomination largely rallied to his side. Most did once again last week, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis saying: “The weaponisation of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society.”
Yet others were more guarded. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, who recently announced his own run to be the next president, said he hoped charges would not be filed. However, he added: “Let me be clear. No one is above the law. The handling of classified materials of the United States is a serious matter.”
One poll suggested most Republicans think the charges are politically motivated and that they would still vote for Trump if he were charged.
What is missing from those most recent polls, however, is the large swathe of Americans – including a third of Republicans – who do not want want to vote for Trump. An April NBCNews poll found 60 per cent of Americans did not want Trump to run again, while as many as 70 per cent did not want Biden to serve a second time.
That means a majority of Americans want to move on from the current generation of candidates and look to the future. Democrats are not getting the luxury of a choice – only a couple of low key candidates are challenging Biden.
But the field of those looking to replace Trump among Republicans has grown to almost a dozen.
One of them, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said: “We’ve got to start doing this in a way that we can win a general election. It’s time for a new generational leader.”
Former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, who also entered the race, told CNN of the indictments: “The fact is, that these facts are devastating.”
Christie, a one-time Trump ally, has turned into one of his most outspoken critics as he launches his own presidential bid.
Other hopefuls, such as Haley and DeSantis, have to tread a careful line. They assess they cannot afford to antagonise the large fraction of Republicans who remain loyal to Trump.
Rather, they have to highlight what they believe is their ability to take on Biden next year and will not have the distraction of facing multiple criminal charges.
They dare not say so out loud, but news that Trump was being charged over something as serious as retaining classified documents, will have come as music to their ears.