Landmark ruling against Trump triggers unprecedented political earthquake

The electoral impact of the ruling is uncertain, but a small shift in votes could decide the presidential election

Donald Trump al salir del juzgado, este jueves en Manhattan (Nueva York).
Donald Trump leaving the courthouse, on Thursday in Manhattan (New York).Seth Wenig (via REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

Donald Trump has become the first former U.S. president to be convicted of a felony (34, in his case). Not only that: Trump is also the Republican Party’s candidate for the November 5 presidential election and is leading the polls to return to the White House. Never before has a convicted felon been a major party candidate with a chance of winning the election. The landmark ruling against Trump has triggered an unprecedented political earthquake, with unpredictable aftershocks.

Trump has already made it clear that he wants to turn the U.S. electorate into a jury — one composed not of 12 members, but of the more than 150 million voters in the country. “The real verdict is going to be November 5, by the people,” was one of the first sentences Trump uttered as he left the courthouse after hearing the jury foreman declare him guilty to each of the 34 felony counts against him. The former president was found guilty of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels that was paid in exchange for her staying quiet about her alleged affair with Trump, which threatened to ruin his campaign in the 2016 presidential election.

After learning of the jury’s decision, Trump called the judge in charge of the case “corrupt” and said — without providing any evidence — that it “was a rigged decision right from day one.” He argues is that he is being politically persecuted by the government of Joe Biden, although the president has kept out of the proceedings and the Stormy Daniels case was brought by the Manhattan District Attorney, not federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice.

On November 5, U.S. voters will be faced with the choice of either re-electing a president who is clearly unpopular or voting for a convicted felon. That’s how Trump is set to be labelled in the just over five months that are left in the campaign, a period that is even shorter if early voting is taken into account. The U.S. Constitution, however, does not prevent a convicted felon from running for office or from being elected.

At a different period in time, it would have been unthinkable for a criminal to have a chance of winning the White House, but Trump has managed to break all the rules of U.S. politics. He has survived sex scandals, his business’ convictions for fraud, two impeachments in Congress, his political responsibilities for the assault on the Capitol, and four indictments. He is capable of also overcoming a conviction. His fundraising website crashed after the guilty verdict due to the large number of supporters who wanted to donate. Even before the conviction, Trump had described himself a “political prisoner” in fundraising appeals.

Presenting himself as a victim of the system has so far worked for Trump. Each of his four indictments led to a rise in donations and gave him a boost in the polls. Trump swept the Republican primaries, with most of his rivals saying they were willing to support him even if he was convicted. And he has surged to the top of the polls.

The big question is whether the verdict against Trump, and the judge’s sentencing on July 11, four days before the start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, will significantly sway voters. Although polls before the verdict indicated that the vast majority of Republicans would still support him even if he was convicted, the election is expected to be so close that just a small shift from Republican voters and independents could tip the balance. An NPR/PBS poll released Thursday indicated that 10% of Republicans and 11% of independents said they were less likely to vote for Trump if he was convicted. However, given these were polls about a hypothetical situation, their value is relative.

In six swing states, Trump has a relatively small lead over Biden. A small shift in votes could change everything. If Joe Biden retains the states that he clearly won in 2020 and wins Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the difference with Trump is small, he could afford to lose Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, where the former president has a bigger lead.

The July 11 sentencing will hardly stop the Republican candidate from campaigning. In theory, each of the 34 counts of which he has been convicted carries a maximum of four years in prison, but the judge can decide that the sentences be served concurrently, which would effectively reduce the maximum prison time to four years. However, given Trump has no criminal record, the judge may decide against jail time, and sentence him to probation. And even if he were to decide that he should serve the sentence in prison, he would most likely not do so until the sentence is final, which could take years.

The former president is facing three other criminal cases and will likely have to attend some hearings, which he will use as an opportunity to continue to present himself as a victim. The three cases include one in Florida for illegally withholding classified documents, and two others, in Georgia and Washington, for his attempts to subvert the election results of the 2020 election and stop the certification of Biden’s victory.

However, Trump has succeeded in his strategy of stalling the trials, which have faced one delay after the other. It is unlikely that any of the three trials will be held before the Nov. 5 election. What’s more, Trump has claimed his actions following the 2016 election are covered by presidential immunity (a claim that does not apply to the Stormy Daniels case). The Supreme Court is set to rule on his immunity, and a ruling in favor of Trump would reduce the charges against him.

Biden, for his part, has given a measured response to the verdict. The U.S. president learned of the jury’s decision in Delaware, where he had gone for the anniversary of the death of his son Beau. Following the news, he posted a message from his personal account on X — not the presidential one: “There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box,” without referring to the trial.

The White House avoided immediately responding to the jury’s verdict, which could have backfired, and left it to the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris campaign to weigh in. “In New York today, we saw that no one is above the law,” Biden-Harris campaign communications director Michael Tyler said in a statement, which highlighted the importance of beating Trump at the polls. “The threat Trump poses to our democracy has never been greater.”

Biden successfully used the defense of democracy in his campaign for the midterm legislative elections in November 2022. Now, he is set to repeat that argument in his presidential campaign, which is also focusing on reproductive rights.

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