Trial Will Test Trump’s Limits of Reaping Political Gain From Legal Woes
For all their bluster, nobody in Donald J. Trump’s political inner circle actually thinks a criminal conviction will help him with the independent voters and suburban women who lost him the presidency in 2020.
But since Mr. Trump was first indicted, he and his team have looked toward securing the nomination as a vital imperative. And as he is set to become the first former United States president to stand trial, some of those advisers — who long ago realized that his freedom is intertwined with the outcome of the 2024 election — see a silver lining in the calendar.
On Thursday, a New York judge set a March 25 start date for a trial on charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, accusing Mr. Trump of falsifying business records to cover up reimbursements for a hush-money payment made in 2016 to a porn star who said she had a past affair with him.
Legal observers have commented that, compared with charges Mr. Trump faces for hanging onto sensitive national security documents and obstructing efforts to retrieve them, or with the charges accusing him of conspiring to defraud the United States in trying to overturn an election, the hush-money case seems far less weighty.
And those hush-money charges represent a low-level felony, and comparatively less potential prison time.
“There is absolutely no crime in this lawless case,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, insisting that it is an effort to interfere with the election and that Mr. Bragg should “instead be focused on cleaning up New York” and on local crime.
On a personal level, Mr. Trump is deeply unhappy about the case. It involves sordidness about his personal life and incensed him when the hush-money details became public in 2018, while he was president. He has made clear to associates that he wants to see it disappear.
But politically, Mr. Trump’s advisers have exploited the hush-money indictment to great effect. It was his first indictment of four that he faced in the 2024 primary cycle, sending his fund-raising through the roof and prompting leery Republicans — including his opponents — to question the charges.
The Trump team’s approach since the Bragg indictment was handed down has been to portray all of his criminal exposure — 91 felony counts in all — as part of one grand conspiracy by President Biden and the Democrats to stop him.
“This is all from the D.O.J., this all comes out of Washington,” Mr. Trump said after the hearing where the trial date was set, expanding his baseless claim across several civil actions he has faced. He had sought once again to delay the proceedings, to no avail.
“It’s all a rigged — it’s a rigged state, it’s a rigged city, it’s a shame,” Mr. Trump said, shortly after the judge, Justice Juan M. Merchan, said the case involved “serious allegations” about covering up a payoff to affect an election.
Mr. Trump offered no backup for his claim that every legal case he has faced is being puppeteered from on high, and never has.
And there is a significant downside for him to a local trial taking place: Unlike with the federal cases, Mr. Trump cannot try to pardon himself should he become president again. Still, questions remain about the practical realities of imposing a prison sentence on an elected president in a local case.
And as a matter of raw political optics ahead of Election Day, the hush-money trial going first means a month of intense media attention focused on matters the public may be less troubled by than they would have if the federal election-subversion trial in Washington had gone first, as had been expected.
“You can get plenty of witnesses who are going to argue that this was not inappropriate, that it’s done all the time, and in fact being willing to pay it is not an acceptance of any culpability, it’s that he didn’t want the publicity, and it’s done fairly frequently,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and an ally of Mr. Trump’s.
Mr. Trump’s allies have repeatedly pointed to the fact that Mr. Bragg is a Democrat, and that his predecessor, along with federal prosecutors, did not file charges in connection with the facts of the case, to emphasize his claims of victimhood. (Mr. Bragg represents a borough where Democrats overwhelmingly make up the people registered to vote).
Mr. Trump complained on Thursday that the trial would keep him off the campaign trail. But in January, he chose to attend two civil trials he was facing that he wasn’t required to attend, in part because, as one adviser said privately, he saw the appearances as campaign events.
The Trump campaign has been preparing to do evening events with Mr. Trump in New York and other locations, throughout the hush money trial.
“I can’t overstate this,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Donald Trump is not a candidate. Donald Trump is the leader of a movement, and leaders of movements are profoundly different psychologically than candidates.” The reason, he said, is because his supporters are “followers. They’re not voters.”
Mr. Trump is about to test the limits of what benefits his political campaign can yield from the criminal justice system.
The main witness in the case, Michael D. Cohen, worked for Mr. Trump for years and provided testimony at a House hearing in 2019 that helped spur the New York attorney general’s successful civil fraud case against Mr. Trump and his company. Mr. Trump and his allies have repeatedly denounced Mr. Cohen, who has laid bare his experiences working for the former president in a tell-all book and in interviews.
A parade of other witnesses from that period of time may also offer testimony that is problematic for him.
And in three different court cases in Manhattan, three juries have decided against Mr. Trump or his companies in the last two years. While making Mr. Bragg a villain may work politically with Republicans, it does not have a broader impact, some strategists argue.
“I think the mistake that Trump is making is that at the end of the day this won’t be Alvin Bragg, it will be a jury of his fellow citizens, and Americans respect the jury system and take the verdicts that jurors render seriously,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
Yet Mr. Trump was elected in 2016 despite a lengthy trail of negative incidents related to his character. And polls vary on how many of his supporters who say they will back him would abandon him if he is convicted in a criminal case.
“After the past eight years, that self-selection alone is enough to tell you they won’t have much trouble explaining away an adverse legal ruling, let alone one on dubious grounds,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist.