Felon for president

Khaled Dawoud , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

How will Donald Trump’s conviction impact his bid for the presidency, asks Khaled Dawoud



Since a New York court issued a verdict of guilty against former US president Donald Trump a week ago in the so-called “hush money” trial, Democrats have been happily celebrating being able to officially dub the Republican contender in the upcoming presidential election on 5 November a “convicted felon.”  

US President Joe Biden joined the choir on Monday. “For the first time in American history a former president that is a convicted felon is now seeking the office of the presidency,” he said. “But as disturbing as that is, more damaging is the all-out assault Donald Trump is making on the American system of justice.”

“This was a rigged, disgraceful trial. The real verdict is going to be November 5, by the people, and they know what happened here and everybody knows what happened here,” Trump said minutes after a jury foreperson announced he was guilty on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records to hide making a payment to an adult film star.

A day later, Trump gave a solo news conference that lasted 33 minutes, in which he took no questions, waging an angry rant against the judge in his case, calling him a “devil,” along with the prosecutor and the jury that issued the verdict. He reiterated an argument by his supporters that it was impossible to have an objective jury in the well-known Democratic-leaning state of New York, and, of course “crooked Biden” who “cannot put two sentences together.” He claimed that the case had been “all done by Biden and his people.”

Yet, what seemed to have triggered Biden’s escalation in his anti-Trump rhetoric was a veiled threat the Republican nominee made in a television interview on Sunday, warning of the possible angry reaction by his supporters if the New York court judge decided to send him to jail on 11 July, the date set for his sentencing. Trump would remain free to campaign even if sentenced while his lawyers appeal the sentence. If he won, the case would certainly stall when he appointed his own Justice secretary.

“I’m not sure the public would stand for it [a jail term),” the former president said. “I think it’d be tough for the public to take. You know, at a certain point, there’s a breaking point.”

Some senior Democrats accused Trump of inciting violence in his remarks, which took on a more ominous face given that he told his supporters to “fight like hell” before they waged a mob attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021.

“This is clearly Donald Trump once again inciting violence, potential violence, when he is sentenced,” Representative Adam Schiff told CNN on Sunday. The California Democrat accused Trump of issuing “yet another dangerous appeal to violence”.

While Republicans have rallied around Trump since his conviction, bragging that they received a record $70 million in donations in only two days, it remains unclear how the verdict will go down in swing states where the shift in a few thousand votes could decide November’s election results.

Trump’s conviction will certainly energise his loyal base and his campaign will try to create a backlash to the verdict among more moderate voters. If they succeed, last week’s guilty verdict may come to be remembered as the day Biden lost the election. Alternatively, the guilty verdict could play into the Biden campaign’s theme that his predecessor is too corrupt and extreme to serve as president again. Moderate and suburban voters whom Trump has always struggled to attract could be further alienated.

A question that long hovered over the trial of the controversial former president and businessman is whether the crime — falsifying financial records to hide a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels in order to mislead voters in 2016 — was sufficiently serious to risk the extraordinary political consequences of indicting an ex-president. The prosecutors’ use of Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen as their star witness, despite his own conviction on tax charges and for lying to Congress, was also deeply controversial.

Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche told reporters that the timing of the trial — in the middle of an election campaign — was unfair to the ex-president. Other key Republican leaders also rushed to declare their support for Trump, stressing the same point made by his lawyer: that it was all a political conspiracy by the current administration to undermine his chances of winning the upcoming election.

Another top Trump ally, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, said there was never a chance of a fair trial in a city which drew its jury pool from one of the most liberal areas in America. “This verdict says more about the system than the allegations. It will be seen as politically motivated and unfair, and it will backfire tremendously on the political Left,” Graham said. “This is a mockery of justice.”

Biden’s remark, dubbing his rival a “convicted felon,” was yet another stunning turn in an election entangled in Trump’s multiple legal threats. It was made on a day when Biden’s own family was embroiled in its own extraordinary courtroom drama as Biden’s son, Hunter, became the first child of a sitting president to go on trial. The younger Biden has pleaded not guilty to charges of buying and possessing a gun illegally while addicted to or abusing drugs. He also faces a tax trial in September.

In another significant legal development on Monday, Trump received good news from Georgia, where he is among multiple defendants in a racketeering case over his attempt to steal the swing state from Biden’s column in the 2020 election. The Georgia Court of Appeals set oral arguments for 4 October over an effort to remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from the case.

It was the latest in a string of blows to prosecutors pursuing Trump over his election interference case. The timing of the arguments — only a month before Election Day — makes for an impossibly short timeframe for a trial. The Georgia case, in which Trump has pleaded not guilty, has been delayed by the defendants’ attempt to disqualify Willis after she employed a prosecutor with whom she was in a relationship.

Two other federal cases against Trump, in which he has pleaded not guilty, are similarly in a holding pattern. The US Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on Trump’s sweeping demand for immunity for actions he undertook while president. The justices could still deliver a definitive ruling, but any decision that requires further litigation in lower courts could mean time running out in the election interference case with only five months to go before Election Day.

At the same time, multiple disputes in pre-trial motions have put the looming federal trial in Florida over Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents in suspended animation. Democrats have accused Trump-appointed Judge Aileen Cannon of showing political bias in her rulings, defying their hardline defence of the US justice system after the New York court issued the guilty verdict against Trump.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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