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How Will the Hush-Money Trial Play?

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Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: MEGA/Getty Images

After months of speculation on whether Donald Trump would actually go to court on felony criminal charges before facing voters in November, his Manhattan trial over hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels is fully underway. Possible outcomes include felony convictions, misdemeanor convictions, acquittal, or a hung jury or mistrial, with all four seeming plausible.

Since we don’t know if any of Trump’s other felony criminal indictments will come to trial before November, this could be the key test of whether the 45th president’s legal troubles will affect his prospects for victory over Joe Biden.

While polling on this issue has been sporadic and questionably framed, it is reasonably clear that this particular case has been considered the least important, and thus least potentially damaging, to Trump. FiveThirtyEight explains:

According to an Ipsos/Reuters poll released Wednesday, 65 percent of registered voters found the hush-money-related charges “very” or “somewhat” serious, trailing the other three cases by 5 to 10 points. And in a YouGov poll from January, 56 percent of respondents ranked the hush money case as the least important of the four indictments. That majority held across nearly all demographic groups surveyed, including party identification.

The thinking seems to be that despite the lurid nature of the narrative surrounding the payments to Stormy Daniels, the case involves understandable private conduct (at least for a very rich man running for president) that occurred before Trump was president. And as former prosecutor Elie Honig explained at New York, there’s a counternarrative for the case that makes Trump look more like a victim of overzealous prosecutors than a felon:

The crime is a paperwork offense relating to how Trump and his businesses logged a series of perfectly legal (if unseemly) hush-money payments in their own internal records. The prosecution’s star witness is a convicted perjurer and fraudster who openly spews vitriol at the defendant, often in grotesque terms, essentially for a living. The famously aggressive feds at the Southern District of New York passed on the case years ago, and current Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s predecessor could have indicted before he left office but did not. The charges are either misdemeanors or the lowest-level felonies (depending on how the jury decides the case), and the vast majority of defendants convicted of similar offenses are sentenced to probation and fines, not prison.

Public reaction will depend on the optics of the trial and the exact outcome. An acquittal, of course, would be treated by his campaign and his supporters as a plenary exoneration of Trump that could actually boost his general-election standing but probably won’t move mountains for him insofar as he faces three other felony criminal trials that voters do take very seriously. The biggest short-range question is whether a conviction — particularly of a felony — would significantly damage him. And there is some evidence that it would, as in a new AP-NORC poll released this week: “Half of Americans would consider Trump unfit to serve as president if he is convicted of falsifying business documents to cover up hush-money payments to a woman who said he had a sexual encounter with her.” Most crucially, 47 percent of self-identified independents, and even 15 percent of Republicans, share that sentiment. But anything else than a decisive felony conviction might play into public doubts that prosecutors in this and the other Trump cases are motivated by justice concerns rather than politics, the same polls suggests:

[A] cloud of doubt hangs over all the proceedings. Only about 3 in 10 Americans feel that any of the prosecutors who have brought charges against Trump are treating the former president fairly. And only about 2 in 10 Americans are extremely or very confident that the judges and jurors in the cases against him can be fair and impartial.

It’s also worth noting that the “half of Americans” that would deem Trump “unfit to serve as president” if he’s convicted in Manhattan isn’t much higher than the percentage of voters who have consistently said they would not vote for the former president in any circumstance. As FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley observes, attitudes about Trump’s culpability in the various trials may simply represent inflexible partisanship:

[A March] Ipsos/Politico poll found that a near-identical proportion of Americans (around half) believe Trump is guilty in all four cases. And with beliefs in Trump’s guilt largely falling in line with partisanship, opinions on the indictments appear to be little more than a reflection of how voters feel about Trump at large …

Polling on the New York trial — and the other three indictments — reflects a clean split between the political parties and not much else. A guilty verdict might hurt Trump’s performance among independents, but severe political polarization for and against the former president means that a seismic shift in voting patterns is unlikely.

On the other hand, it may not take a “seismic shift in voting patterns” to lift Joe Biden to victory if this and/or other trials cast a dark light on Trump’s conduct and character. If, as appears increasingly likely, the Biden-Trump contest winds up extremely close, what he did in 2016 to very narrowly get over the finish line could cost him just enough votes in 2024 to keep him from a return to the White House. Biden would almost certainly have to fight another Trump effort to challenge or overturn the results, but that’s a problem for another day’s consideration.


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