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Trump on trial tests his political wherewithal — and American resolve


Throughout its 248-year history, America has witnessed dramatic, high-profile courtroom battles that test the laws and tear at its social fabric: from the Haymarket Square riot case and the Scopes Monkey Trial to the failed prosecution of Hall of Fame NFL running back O.J. Simpson in a grisly double murder.

But the country has never seen anything quite like the made-for-the-screen trial set to start Monday in New York: A former president, who is also the current Republican Party nominee for the presidency, faces a jury in a criminal trial that is posied to grip the nation and inflame political rhetoric in a country that is already sharply divided. Donald Trump, master of public relations, brands himself as a political prisoner. The state of New York contends that he is a common criminal using his stature to mock justice.

That otherworldly canvas promises to be filled in with earthly details of a wealthy businessman paying a porn star to remain silent about the affair she claims they had. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg says Trump broke the law by falsifying business records as part of a scheme to hide payments to Stormy Daniels. Trump maintains that he didn’t sleep with Daniels — and that he didn’t break the law when his former fixer Michael Cohen bought her silence.

There is a belief among many of Trump’s allies and critics, as well as many legal scholars, that the charges in New York are far less consequential to the public interest than the indictments handed down in federal cases involving his retention of classified materials and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, as well as a pending Georgia trial based on his push to reverse that state’s results in the same election.

Still, two-thirds of registered voters say the hush money charges are “somewhat serious” or “very serious” according to a Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted from April 4 through April 8.

The loudest voices on the political spectrum are amping up the volume on competing arguments: that he has been unfairly targeted because of his political views and that his status as a candidate has unjustly shielded him from a criminal reckoning.

But, at the same time, some in the political arena see the coming circus as a painful episode in American history.

“It’s a sad moment,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., whose district sits about 20 miles south of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate along the Atlantic Coast.

“I don’t think any American should be celebrating that we have a former president who is going to go on trial while at the same time running for president with 90-plus indictments,” Moskowitz said. “Obviously, he is innocent until proven guilty. He deserves a fair trial. But also, what if he’s found guilty and still running for president?”

Nothing in the Constitution prevents a felon from being elected president. But during the GOP primaries this year, some Republicans worried that a conviction could be devastating to his chances of winning a general election rematch with President Joe Biden.

A January NBC News poll showed Trump with a 5-point national lead over Biden, 47% to 42%. But their positions were reversed when respondents were asked what they would do if Trump were convicted of a crime before the Nov. 5 election. In that scenario, Biden led Trump, 45% to 43%.

In March, a Politico/Ipsos poll found that a conviction in the hush money case would “do real damage” to Trump. The news outlet reported that one-third of independents said they would be less likely to vote for Trump following a prospective conviction.

Trump allies say there is an advantage in Bragg going to trial before special counsel Jack Smith, who has won indictments of Trump on the classified documents and election interference charges.

“I love that Alvin Bragg is going first,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who speaks regularly with Trump about the state of his campaign.

“His case is the most frivolous factually, and tortured legally,” Gaetz said of Bragg. “The fact pattern that will be alleged in the Bragg matter deals with frivolities, whereas there will be this attempt to be more serious in the Jack Smith matters.”

They are also bullish about the possibility that the trial itself could turn public opinion more in Trump’s favor.

“It’s fitting that President Trump’s trial is starting on the heels of O.J. Simpson’s passing,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Republican media strategist who led Trump’s 2020 Hispanic advertising. “The media circus around their legal troubles is similar, with one key difference: The more people heard about the Simpson case, the more they thought he was guilty. With Trump, the opposite is true.”

There’s no question that Trump’s legal troubles rallied Republicans to his side during the primaries. His rebound from political peril began in earnest when Bragg first indicted him last year. But his audience then was primarily the die-hard GOP voters who dominate party primaries. Democrats have also sought to make the New York case less about an alleged affair with a porn star and more about election interference — arguing Trump broke the law to win the 2016 election, establishing a pattern.

Now, Trump has to hope both that he escapes a guilty verdict and — regardless of the jury’s conclusion — that he is able to convert his prosecution into an unrivaled turnout machine for his base or sympathy votes from people outside it.

His ongoing efforts to delay all of his trials suggest that he fears it will much harder to win if he has the word “felon” tattooed on his brand. If he loses the election and lacks the power to stop the federal prosecutions, those two cases figure to extend the period during which a defeated political candidate is being prosecuted by the Justice Department of the man who beat him.

“What’s it going to look like after he loses the election and these trials are going on?” Moskowitz said. “It’s not a great moment for the country.”


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