Yesterday, Donald Trump was arraigned in a Manhattan courthouse in connection with 34 felony counts related to misrepresenting business records. In this Q&A, Thomas Gift explains Trump’s response, how the trial could unfold, and the broader electoral implications heading into the 2024 election.
What did you make of yesterday’s historic arraignment of Trump?
What struck me most about yesterday was a simple contrast. Trump wanted a spectacle with the arraignment. The office of the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, didn’t. In the end, I think Trump got what he wanted purely by dint of the fact that this was inherently a political moment. In a prime-time speech following the arraignment, Trump exploited the spotlight to lash out at the prosecution and to denigrate other ongoing investigations he’s facing. That’s likely to earn points with his base. At the same time, it’s important to highlight that Trump’s tirade wasn’t in any way about coalition-building. Trump is doubling down on a strategy that might earn him the GOP nomination. But it’s getting harder to see exactly how he translates his brand of grievance politics into broad support needed to win the general election. For Trump, that’s the big challenge as he gears up for what looks to be a protracted legal battle.
What’s Trump’s strategy likely to be going forward?
It’s important to keep in mind that Trump’s waging his defense on two fronts: in the literal courtroom, and in the courtroom of public opinion. In terms of public opinion, Trump is obviously going “scorched earth” on social media. But from a legal perspective, Trump can’t out-politick the law, and each of the 34 counts he’s facing has its own threshold of guilt. Tactically, we can expect Trump to try to get these charges dismissed, or at least to delay the trial as long as possible. Substantively, his defense will be that there’s nothing illicit about issuing a non-disclosure agreement. He’ll say that the hush money he paid to the adult entertainer, Stormy Daniels, had nothing to do with the election and everything to do with avoiding personal embarrassment—basically, protecting his wife and children. So in that sense, campaign finance laws shouldn’t apply. And if they don’t apply, there’s no jurisdiction for a prosecuting a federal felony.
Will Trump tone down his rhetoric once the trial starts?
Trump’s posture here is defiance. That defiance may be more muted inside the courtroom than outside of it. But this is still Trump—and his legal team will be an extension of his political impulses. Mostly, we can expect Trump’s conduct to depend on the judge’s rules and how he exercises discretion about what’s permissible and what’s out of bounds. A key question is whether the judge imposes a gag order on Trump. My sense is that he’ll try to avoid that because, if he does, it would grant cause for an appeal, which could be litigated and drag the trial out even further. It could also feed into the narrative of Trump being muzzled in the wake of his campaign. But if the judge doesn’t issue a gag order, then Trump could continue to post inflammatory comments about the court. That has the potential to undermine the perceived impartiality—and legitimacy—of the trial.
“Trump Tower, Déc 2022” (CC BY 2.0) by Cerfia
Why have Trump’s Republican opponents rushed to his defense?
Trump’s opponents aren’t punching back because they don’t want to alienate the MAGA base. It’s that simple. If you’re Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or anyone else vying for the Republican nomination, you’re essentially boxed in. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Trump’s competitors are missing an opportunity to attack him. But to my mind, the electoral repercussions of that strategy are unclear. Ethical appeals have never proven effective in taking down Trump. If they were, Trump would have already met his demise many times over. Republican voters tend to compartmentalize morality with Trump. They overlook his character flaws in exchange for the policies they want. Just consider the phrases that define this case: “hush money, “adult film star,” “criminal indictment.” It’s all out in the open. The notion that Trump’s challengers would win over conservative voters by doing even more moralizing seems unconvincing.
How is this case likely to play out among American voters?
If an indictment had to happen, it benefits Trump for these charges to be brought first. That’s because, compared to other cases Trump is implicated in—like the Georgia vote-rigging probe or the special counsel inquiry into the mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago—this prosecution seems to be the weakest legally. That doesn’t mean that Trump’s demagoguery about this being a “witch hunt” is right. But it will resonate with some voters. Trump’s already leveraged the indictment to raise a reported $7 million. He’s risen in the GOP primary polls. Clearly, he’s benefiting in the short-term. But in the long-term, the consequences are less clear. If there’s a guilty verdict, Trump will have a harder time convincing swing voters that this is a political persecution. But if there’s a not guilty verdict, then Trump will really spin this as proof that he’s the victim of “overzealous” prosecution and a “weaponized” judicial system.
How is case being received by audiences abroad?
Prosecuting a former president isn’t the sign that America wants to project internationally. Whether you think the charges are appropriate or not, it’s hard to dispute the claim that it’s tarnishing to the country’s reputation. We have seen former heads of state face criminal charges in other advanced democracies. But Trump’s prosecution is unique in the United States, and it does shatter a longstanding norm of current and former executives being inoculated from indictments. You could say this is part of a broader unraveling of America’s reputation. The United States has historically been viewed as a model democracy. But with January 6th and now with Trump facing criminal charges, that veneer has been taken off. It’s possible to overstate these effects. Yet on the margins, this will erode the belief that America is somehow immune from fundamental political problems that have afflicted other nations.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
- This interview is based on comments from comments Thomas Gift made on CNN’s “Newsroom” and Al Jazeera English’s “Newshour” on 5 April 2023
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