Trump’s ‘runt’ criminal case goes first. It’s a big test.

Welcome to The Campaign Moment, your guide to the biggest developments in the 2024 election — including, it now appears more or less certain, a criminal trial of a former president next month.

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On Monday came confirmation that Donald Trump will become the first president or former president in history to face a criminal trial — and soon.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan set an apparently firm April 15 trial date for Trump’s hush money case, after strongly rejecting the Trump team’s claims of prosecutorial misconduct.

These things always have some wiggle room — and the date has already been pushed back — but all signs are that we’re a little less than three weeks away.

That would seem to be very bad news for Trump. But with this unprecedented case comes unprecedented politics. And those politics are a little harder to suss out than in his three other indictments. That’s why it’s sometimes been labeled the “runt” of the litter.

There’s even an argument to be made that holding this trial first — and potentially having it be the only trial held before the November election — could play into Trump’s hands.

Let’s break that all down.

The polls have long suggested that a criminal conviction could torpedo Trump’s chances of a return to the White House. While Trump holds a small lead over President Biden in many polls, they also suggest a conviction would shift the margins by between five and 14 points.

So if Trump leads by a few points, that could swing the race in Biden’s favor. Being a felon isn’t a disqualifier for the vast majority of Trump supporters, but it could well be for enough of them to swing the race.

Of course, that’s if people are being honest with themselves. And these things, like trial dates, are always subject to change once people learn more.

The New York case will surely test all that.

For one, the stakes are objectively smaller than the others. The other three cases involve allegedly fraudulent attempts to overturn the 2020 election and withhold sensitive classified documents that could jeopardize national security; this one involves allegedly falsifying business records to hide Trump’s $130,000 hush money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in 2016.

The whole thing is salacious, and Trump has been linked to a proven crime. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in the matter. It’s even possible that Trump masking the payment swung the results of a very close 2016 election. Just imagine if Trump paying off an adult-film star had gone public on its eve.

But the prosecution rests on a somewhat novel legal theory. Falsifying business records is generally a misdemeanor, but Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) is linking that to a crime — the Cohen-related campaign finance violation — to bump the charges up to felonies.

And this case clearly doesn’t rank in the minds of Americans:

  • A September Quinnipiac University poll showed just 32 percent of Americans regarded the Manhattan charges as “very serious” — compared with between 51 and 56 percent for the other three cases.
  • An August AP-NORC poll showed just 34 percent thought Trump had done something illegal in the Manhattan case — compared with between 47 and 53 percent for the others. (Even just 55 percent of Democrats believed that, compared with at least 8 in 10 in the other cases.)
  • Perhaps most relevant to the politics here, an August CNN poll showed just 31 percent said a conviction in the Manhattan case would be disqualifying for Trump — compared with between 43 and 51 percent in the other cases.

Fully 6 in 10 say a conviction would at least “cast doubt on” Trump’s fitness for the job, which is significant. But this isn’t the dealbreaker that the others are. And just 9 percent of Republican-leaning voters say a conviction would be disqualifying — a number that isn’t much different from the approximately 8 percent of GOP-leaning voters who didn’t back Trump in 2020.

Which brings us to how Trump might use this being his first prosecution. Trump has spent years claiming that he’s being persecuted by a weaponized justice system. Imagine if there’s an acquittal in this case and/or the prosecution’s legal theory falls apart.

The CNN poll suggests Americans are inclined to disbelieve Trump’s claims to persecution; 48 percent attributed his legal jeopardy to his own actions, while just 31 percent cited a political abuse of the justice system. But that could certainly shift if Americans aren’t convinced by Trump’s first — and potentially only — prosecution of 2024.

A moment you may have missed

We finally got some news on the running-mate front Tuesday. No, it’s not Trump’s running mate, but rather Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s.

The independent candidate announced that wealthy Silicon Valley lawyer Nicole Shanahan will be his vice-presidential nominee. Shanahan, a 38-year-old political novice, is perhaps best known for recently spending millions of dollars to run a pro-Kennedy Super Bowl ad.

The pick is much more of a blank slate than other candidates reported to be under consideration, including former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But as it would have with Rodgers, it will lead to questions about how much the ticket will be defined by vaccine skepticism. Shanahan has insisted she’s not an anti-vaxxer, but she has said, “I do think that the increase of vaccine-related injuries is very alarming.”

Kennedy has spouted false claims about vaccines for years, but he had shied away from making the issue a centerpiece of his campaign until recently.

He currently polls around double digits, and he takes about evenly from both Trump and Biden — despite Republicans liking him a lot more than Democrats do. But as I’ve written, a vaccine focus for the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket could logically appeal more to the much-more-vaccine-skeptical political right. And some Trump allies are concerned.

That’s how Trump concluded a post about his Manhattan prosecution on Truth Social on Tuesday morning.

While Trump has used the phrase repeatedly in the past, he had shied away from it since supporters he had urged to “stop the steal” rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Rioters chanted the slogan as they took over the Capitol.

The re-invocation of the quote is merely the latest evidence that Trump intends to retcon the events of that day into something to be celebrated, most notably by saluting Jan. 6 defendants at his rallies and promising to pardon them. It’s also merely the latest evidence of him employing language that could logically lead his supporters to turn violent.


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