A day after being found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to pay $5 million in damages, Donald Trump took part Wednesday night in a CNN town hall, where he took advantage of the prime-time slot to claim he was the victim of a political “witch hunt.” It’s the same claim he made in April when he was charged with 34 counts over his involvement in hush money paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels. It proved a winning strategy: not only did donations pour into the Trump campaign, the former president also saw a bump in popularity. According to a voter intention poll published last weekend, 44% of respondents would support Trump in the 2024 presidential election, compared to 34% for U.S. President Joe Biden.
But while Trump is the clear favorite to win the Republican presidential primaries, the sex assault verdict has started to raise doubts about whether he is the most suitable candidate to run for the White House. On Tuesday, jurors in New York found Trump had sexually abused and defamed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, though they rejected her claim that he raped her. The former president says the sexual assault case is part of the broader witch hunt against him, alleging that a well-known Democratic Party donor is behind the woman’s lawsuit.
The case has furthered questions about whether Trump’s legal woes will help or harm him. This debate is prominent among the most moderate wing of the Republican Party, which is concerned that Trump — who is the subject of several other investigations — may stain the reputation of the GOP and turn away voters.
While Republicans closed ranks around the former president when he was indicted in April, they may find it more difficult to stand by a candidate convicted of sexual abuse, which is a more sensitive issue for voters. In a November 2017 poll — released after Trump was accused of sexual harassment in a series of unrelated cases — respondents overwhelmingly (61% to 33%) said that he should be impeached and removed from office if the allegations were proven. Even 28% of Republicans agreed. Indeed, there was more support for action against Trump than when he was subject to two impeachment trials, which both failed to convict him. For the Republican Party, finding out whether those numbers still hold, or if they have in fact risen after Tuesday’s conviction, is critical.
According to analysts, Trump may be able to present himself as a victim of political persecution when it comes to the cases against his company, the Georgia probe into whether he tried to overturn his election defeat in that state, the federal criminal investigation over top secret documents found at his Florida estate, and the investigation into his role in instigating the assault on the Capitol in January 2021 — but it is more difficult to label a conviction for sexual abuse as a witch hunt.
While in all these cases, Republicans have rallied behind Trump, there has been less vocal support for the former president over the sex abuse conviction. Indeed, conservative lawyer George Conway, who believes in the traditional values of the Republican Party, openly celebrated the verdict. “God bless E Jean Carroll and congratulations to Roberta Kaplan [Carroll’s attorney] and her team for a job well done,” he tweeted on Monday.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson — who is running against Trump in the primaries — also spoke out against the former president. “The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump,” he said in a statement.
Republican Senator John Thune added that the verdict should make the party rethink whether Trump is a suitable presidential candidate. “It has a cumulative effect,” he said. “People are going to have to decide if they want to deal with all the drama.”
Texas Senator John Cornyn was even clearer: “The fact is, I do not think he could win the presidency.”
Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, meanwhile, tried to remain on the fence. When asked on NBC if Trump is fit to serve in the White House again, he replied: “I think that’s a question for the American people.”
Only Florida Senator Marco Rubio rushed to defend Trump. “That jury’s a joke. The whole case is a joke,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
But overall, there have been few dissenting voices against Trump. Noticeably silent was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has avoided criticizing Trump as he prepares to launch his campaign for the presidency.
Trump’s advisors have warned that the former president has a very low approval rating among women with university degrees, and Tuesday’s verdict is likely to make it even harder for him to win over these voters. In last weekend’s survey, released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 44% of female respondents preferred Biden, compared to 41% in favor of Trump. But this situation was reversed when it came to men, with 48% supporting Trump and 31% backing Biden. A similar division was seen in regard to a potential Biden-DeSantis standoff.
“Just about everyone has made up their mind about Donald Trump, and some Republicans are absolutely determined to ignore absolutely everything he says or does, no matter how egregious,” Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz told The Washington Post. “Where this comes into play and where it is important is a critical swing group: women with kids in suburban areas who are economically conservative and socially moderate, but you won’t hear a peep from them until November.”
In 2020, Trump lost the presidential election in part due to his low approval ratings among female voters.
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