Donald Trump ushers in an unpredictable phase in US politics, as he moves between the dock and rallies

The first criminal trial of a former president — which could be the only one of the four cases against the Republican candidate to be held before the November election — begins Monday in New York

Donald Trump elecciones Estados Unidos
Merchandise for Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump hangs displayed for sale inside Trump Tower in New York City.Shannon Stapleton (REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

The first criminal trial of the four cases against Donald Trump begins on Monday in Manhattan. It will take place in a gloomy courthouse a few blocks from New York City Hall, right next to Chinatown, with a case that mixes hush money, a porn star and a defendant who — after making atrocious remarks about women and immigrants — beat the odds and was elected president of the United States in 2016. With Trump standing for election in November, it is a high-stakes case that has sparked a media storm.

Some have compared the media furor to what was seen at the O. J. Simpson trial almost three decades ago. Others wonder if it will test the institution of justice and the very concept that no individual is above the law, not even a former president, the first in U.S. history to be criminally indicted.

The trial for the Stormy Daniels case — stemming from hush money paid to the porn actress Stormy Daniels to ensure she kept silent about her alleged extramarital affair with Trump — brings to a close the turbulent 12 months that have passed since the ex-president was indicted. After months of legal procedures, including three appeal attempts by his defense team, the most recent of which was filed last week, there is no turning back. And not because Trump has not tried to postpone the trial: delaying tactics are the backbone of his defense team’s strategy.

Trump’s defense has also argued that as a presidential candidate, Trump should be campaigning and not “in a court defending himself” — an argument used in an effort to get the lead judge, Juan Merchan, to postpone the trial. This back-and-forth between the court and campaign rallies — the source of an avalanche of headlines — has turned this year’s election into terra incognita, an unprecedented and unpredictable stage in the history of the United States.

The first criminal case to put Trump in the dock is a compendium of everything that characterizes the Republican: base instincts, finances and political ambition. It’s the perfect definition of Donald Trump. The hush money paid to bury the claims of his alleged extramarital affair and prevent it from causing a scandal that could have buried his 2016 presidential campaign is a clear manifestation of his power: wealth ($130,000) to exert his will and tricks to cover up the payment. The payout was made by Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen — who later turned against the former president — and disguised as a “legal expense” in Trump’s company’s records. What’s more, it’s claimed that these actions could amount to electoral interference, as they were designed to stop the scandal from hurting Trump’s chances at the 2016 election. According to many observers, this issue could become the touchstone for a trial on whether Trump violated campaign finance laws.

It is not surprising, therefore, that of the four indictments against Trump (two for electoral interference, one for mishandling of confidential documents; see below), the Stormy Daniels case is the one that, according to those close to the former president, upsets him the most. These sources claim that the Republican candidate feels uncomfortable because of the very nature of the story. It’s also difficult for Trump to claim that these sordid details are evidence that he is being politically persecuted by the Democrats, even if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is a Democrat.

If only because it may be the only one of the four trials to be held before the November elections, the Stormy Daniels case is already of utmost importance. But while it is often dismissed by experts and observers as legally dubious and, comparatively speaking, less serious than the two election interference cases (in Washington and Georgia), it may be Trump’s Achilles heel.

Larry Sabato, from the University of Virginia, believes the federal case over Trump’s efforts to reverse the results of the 2020 election and his role in inciting the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, poses a bigger threat to the former president. “The January 6 affair could do a lot of damage to Trump, for example, but I’m not sure the trial involving Stormy Daniels will, even if he were convicted. Trump’s ratings rise every time he appears persecuted. His cult is fanatical,” explains Sabato. A conviction in the New York trial, which is expected to last between six and eight weeks, “could have an impact, but I don’t even bet on that happening. Inflation and the border [crisis] seem to weigh more electorally than the public’s verdict on Trump’s fitness for office. But I warn you: we are only in April. Many things will happen and change before the November elections.”

Voters will have the final say, and judging by the latest poll, a clear majority of Americans think the Stormy Daniels case is serious. Trump is facing 34 charges, all classified as Class E felonies, the lowest level felonies in the State of New York. Some 64% of voters say the charges are “serious,” compared to 34% who say they are not, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published last Monday. Four in 10 Republicans, and two-thirds of independents, believe the charges are important. If Trump is convicted, each count carries a maximum prison sentence of four years.

“I have a system, The Keys to the White House, to predict the presidential elections. But the trial doesn’t influence my prediction,” says Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History at American University in Washington. “However, outside the scope of the system, a conviction could be unprecedented enough to have an independent impact on the results. According to primary polls, a substantial percentage of likely Trump voters have said that a conviction would, in their view, disqualify him from the presidency. Even if only a fraction of these voters were to abandon Trump, that could be significant in a close election.” Most voting intention polls give Trump a lead over his Democratic rival, President Joe Biden.

“If Trump were found guilty and received a prison sentence, that could influence voter perception. However, the trial itself is unlikely to significantly influence public opinion, since it is not presenting new information,” says Diana Z. O’Brien, professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Regarding the back-and-forth between the courtroom and rallies, O’Brien explains: “Trump will have to be in the courtroom four days a week. He says he will campaign in the afternoons, but the trial limits the amount of time he can spend outside.”

Contempt for women

The Stormy Daniels case is like a script from a movie. In 2016, in the final days of Trump’s first run for the White House, porn actress Stormy Daniels threatened to reveal an affair she claimed to have had with him in 2006, when Trump’s wife, Melania, had just given birth. According to prosecutors and their star witness, Trump’s former lawyer Cohen, the tycoon bought her silence for $130,000. Workers at the Trump Organization falsified a series of invoices, checks and accounting entries to cover the tracks of the payment. Cohen was later sentenced, in late 2018, to three years in prison for campaign finance violations; that is, for the hush money paid to Daniels to keep her from revealing the scandal before the election.

But like an oil spill, or a juicy soap opera, Bragg and his team asked Judge Merchan for permission to tell a much broader story, which not only involves one hush money payment, but three. This story also provides a detailed account of how Trump used his ties with a tabloid editor to prevent embarrassing stories about him from coming to light. As if that were not enough, prosecutors want to present evidence about the Access Hollywood tape. In the recording, which came to light in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign and included a conversation from 2005, Trump openly said he grabbed women “by the pussy,” obviously without their consent.

“Trump’s pattern of behavior toward women has long been well documented, including the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016,” adds O’Brien, a gender and politics specialist. “Of course, his behavior harms him with female voters. Trump does worse among women than [Republican candidate Mick] Romney did in 2012, especially among college-educated, single and Black women. But both his supporters and detractors know what to expect from him, so they are unlikely to change their minds based on the trial alone.”

Prosecutors may call Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said she had an affair with Trump, as well as Cohen, to the witness stand. Days after the judge expanded the gag order imposed on Trump to restrict his “inflammatory” speech, the Republican tested its limits by calling Daniels and Cohen liars. In a message on his Truth Social platform published last Wednesday, he referred to both as “two sleaze bags who have, with their lies and misrepresentations, cost our country dearly!”

The trial is set to cause a spectacle, both inside and outside of the courtroom, as demonstrated by the media circus surrounding the case and the colorful array of Trumpists who flocked to see him on April 4, 2023 for the reading of the charges. The trial is set to be a mix of the salacious and the soporific, with a detailed analysis expected of the Trump Organization’s accounting entries.

The Trump Organization was also found guilty of tax fraud, with the tycoon sentenced to pay $464 million. Both the company case and the defamation trial brought by columnist E. Jean Carroll, which cost Trump $92 million, are civil cases and did not involve prison sentences. But the millionaire-dollar fines link Trump the man to Trump the presidential candidate: funds raised by the Trump campaign are used to pay for his legal fees.

After the jury is selected — a process that is expected to last between one and two weeks, although it could take longer because it will not be easy to assess the potential juror’s objectivity in the face of the most polarizing figure in the United States — Trump’s fate will be in the hands of 12 anonymous peers, plus six alternatives, selected at random among the 1.4 million adults who live in Manhattan. The 42-question questionnaire given to prospective jurors gives an idea of the level of scrutiny they will face. The real countdown, the race to the November 5 elections, has just begun.

Other cases against Trump

The Mar-a-Lago papers

Initially scheduled for May 20 and then delayed, this case is over classified materials that the former president unlawfully took with him after leaving the White House in January 2021 and kept in his private Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. An FBI search in August 2022 found 48 boxes of material, including a hundred classified documents, in various rooms of the mansion, including a bathroom. About 30 referred to top-secret contingency plans to attack a foreign country (Iran).

Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is overseeing this case and the federal investigation into election subversion, has charged Trump with 40 counts in the Mar-a-Lago case, including willful retention of classified documents and violations of the Espionage Act. The indictment was updated in July, with prosecutors alleging that Trump asked a staffer to delete security camera footage at the Florida estate in order to obstruct the federal investigation.

Attempt to subvert 2020 election result

This is the most serious case and refers to the events carried out by Trump, his advisors and supporters in the period between his defeat in the November 2020 presidential elections and January 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters violently stormed Congress with the aim of preventing the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.  Smith has indicted him on four counts, relating to conspiracy to defraud the United States, efforts to obstruct the vote certification proceedings and conspiracy to violate civil rights.

Originally scheduled for March 4, defense appeals, which have gone all the way to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals rejected his immunity in the case, have delayed sine die its start.

Election subversion in Georgia

The fourth criminal case is similar to the third, as it also involves Trump’s efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election. But this case is state, not federal, and only concerns what happened in the state of Georgia. Trump is accused of pressuring state election officials to change the vote count, which gave Biden a narrow victory of fewer than 12,000 votes. Investigators also probed a breach of election machines in a rural county and a plot to use fake electors in a bid to capture the state’s electoral votes for Trump rather than Biden.

The case was close to being derailed by accusations that there was a conflict of interest due to District Attorney Fani Willis' romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. Trump's legal team called for Willis to be recused from the case, but a judge denied the request. On April 4th, an Atlanta judge also rejected Trump's defense's petition to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Trump was protected by freedom of speech when he tried to alter the election results in Georgia.

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