As Trump arrest dominates global headlines, some Md. Republicans try to look away
The timing was purely coincidental.
But just a few hours before former President Trump surrendered to New York law enforcement authorities Tuesday to answer a state indictment, the Maryland House of Delegates bestowed one of its most prestigious awards on former state Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), who frequently sued the former president and his administration over policies and personal business practices.
“It didn’t matter if you were a businessman, a gang member or president of the United States. If you were a bad actor doing harm to the state of Maryland, he would come after you,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said, extolling Frosh’s virtues.
Inside the House chamber, and in the broader Annapolis political community, it was hard not to think about Trump — though some Republicans in the General Assembly were trying to avoid talking about it. Many cited the press of business with the legislative session set to end Monday at midnight.
“We have important things we have to finish here,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), a former House minority whip and senior leader of the conservative wing in the House GOP. “I don’t think the indictment will have any impact on the legislative debate here.”
Senate Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore), who drew attention for his social media posts in 2019 criticizing gun violence and white supremacists associated with Trump, agreed that the former president’s indictment isn’t uppermost on elected Republicans’ minds in Maryland.
“It hasn’t gotten down to the level where we’re discussing it with our legislative colleagues,” he said. “We’re busy doing what we do here. That’s the important thing.”
Del. Nino Mangione (R-Baltimore County), whose family operates the conservative talk radio station WCBM, said he’s been too upset about the direction of the legislative session to worry about the political impact of the Trump indictment.
“I think there are so many important issues that are in trouble in Maryland right now,” he said. “We’ve promoted issues like trans equity but we haven’t really done anything about crime.”
Still, GOP lawmakers couldn’t ignore the unique and consequential proceedings taking place in a Manhattan courtroom.
“It will be interesting to see what transpires,” Szeliga said. “It’s certainly historic.”
But some Republican lawmakers suggested, with regret, that it won’t be such a unique situation going forward. Several predicted that President Biden will be indicted by a local Republican prosecutor whenever he leaves office, for his family’s business ties to China or his son Hunter’s infamous laptop.
“It’s going to devolve into a banana republic,” Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) said. “Is that what we really want?”
Many national pundits and political professionals believe Trump’s indictment will help his cause as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination for a third time, but could hurt the party overall in the 2024 general election. On the first point, Del. Lauren Arikan (R-Harford) is inclined to agree.
“It’s definitely going to raise him as the frontrunner in the primary,” she said. “It’s free press and people think he’s been wronged.”
But other Republicans suggest the latter point could also be true, especially in Maryland, where Trump was blown out in the 2016 and 2020 White House elections, and where a Trump acolyte, former Del. Dan Cox (R), was badly defeated in the 2022 gubernatorial election.
“From a purely political calculus, I think if he’s the Republican nominee for president it will not help Republican candidates running for office in Maryland,” said House Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R-Allegany). “That would not be an ideal development.”
Buckel may have a vested interest in who is at the top of the GOP ticket in 2024: He’s pondering a run for Congress in the 6th District, far and away the most competitive congressional district in the state.
Buckel, an attorney, said Tuesday his focus for now is on the final few days of the legislative session and a federal trial he’s preparing for in late April, and not on 2024 politics. He said he’d probably wait until summer to make a decision about a congressional run. He would not have to sacrifice his legislative seat to make the race.
U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th) would be the early favorite for reelection, regardless of who becomes the Republican nominee for president, based on his personal wealth and ability to self-fund his campaigns. But Trone could wind up running for Senate next year if U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) chooses to retire. Most strategists believe the 6th District race would be a tossup if Trone moves on.
“Then things could get interesting,” Buckel acknowledged.
‘These are crimes in New York no matter who you are’
In the New York courtroom Tuesday afternoon, Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 state felony offenses related to what prosecutors say were hush money payments to an adult film star.
In a brief but unprecedented appearance in a Manhattan trial court, Trump learned he was charged with falsifying business records 34 times from February to December 2017.
Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, paid Stormy Daniels, a porn actor who said she had a sexual relationship with Trump, $130,000 in exchange for her silence about the supposed relationship during the 2016 presidential race, according to a 16-page indictment and attached statement of facts that were unsealed Tuesday.
Trump then repaid Cohen in 34 payments over the course of 2017, but described them in Trump Organization records as payments for legal services, meant to cover up the payment to Daniels, prosecutors said.
Trump denies having an affair with Daniels.
“These are crimes in New York no matter who you are,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) said following the arraignment.
“Everyone stands equal before the law,” he added. “No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring American principle.”
Responding to a question asking why he brought charges after his predecessor and federal prosecutors declined to do so, Bragg said his office had new evidence that wasn’t available to the prior district attorney and that New York state, as the “business capital of the world,” had a particular interest in prosecuting business fraud cases.
Trump has accused Bragg of being motivated by politics.
Just before arriving at the arraignment, Trump posted to his social media site, Truth Social.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse” he wrote. “Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Trump left the courthouse without commenting but was scheduled to speak Tuesday night at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
In Maryland, some Republicans say the charges are minor and did not merit a criminal prosecution.
“Is this a real crime?” said Del. Robin Grammer (R-Baltimore County). He conceded that the push to elevate the trivial in political campaigns and legal battles began with the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential election. But he said that if the allegations about Trump’s activities warranted a criminal trial, then classified documents found in Biden’s garage probably do as well.
Freshman Del. Tom Hutchinson (R-Middle Shore) said he was still learning the ropes in Annapolis and did not have the bandwidth to think much about Trump.
“Let’s see how it plays out,” he said. “I don’t like to see the justice system get involved in politics.”
But he also conceded that the state’s Republican voters may be ready to move on from Trump.
“We may be at a point where we have to look at all the [Republican presidential] candidates,” he said.
The Republicans’ divide over Trump was on vivid display in a single conservative legislative district in Frederick County, the 4th, where Sen. Bill Folden (R) declined to discuss the former president’s indictment because “he’s too much of a lightning rod,” while one of the three lawmakers representing the district in the House, Del. Barrie Ciliberti (R), sees nothing but opportunity for Trump in his latest controversy and legal entanglements.
“I think they just assured his presidency,” Ciliberti said.
Jacob Fischler, Ashley Murray and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.