Trump Is Now a Felon. What Voters Do With That Will Write This Era’s History

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

There are moments in American history that we all know matter, even if we aren’t clear at the time about their weight. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. Republicans’ failed impeachment of Bill Clinton. George W. Bush’s Wall Street bailout. These moments turned out to be political inflection points, the impact of which are still being debated even now. Another such moment just took place in lower Manhattan.

Thursday’s decision by a dozen jurors to find former President Donald Trump guilty of 34 felony crimes is an era-defining event, but how it will shape the age remains entirely uncertain. After all, Ford’s pardon gave permission for Nixon’s apologists to adopt and amplify his win-at-any-cost politics. And the fallout from Clinton’s affair with an intern shaped the 2000 elections in ways big and small, perhaps even paving the way for Bush, whose extraordinary measures to save the economy in the final weeks of his presidency set into motion a reactionary movement that soon became known as the Tea Party.

One could argue each of those moments gave power and momentum to the forces that ultimately fueled Trumpism’s rise and dominance. It’s not clear just what the Trump verdict will yield next in our political system. There is, however, a very good chance that the repercussions bleed far beyond this discrete case and won’t be fully appreciated in real time.

Trump still faces other criminal prosecutions over trying to overturn an election and mishandling classified documents, but the trial that unfolded in New York state court was about allegations he improperly used Trump Organization cash to silence a porn star who claimed to have had a sexual encounter with him a decade before the 2016 election. (Trump has denied the allegations of infidelity and paying out hush money.) New York prosecutors successfully argued Trump knowingly used his business’ funds to conceal the alleged affair to help his presidential bid, a no-no under campaign finance laws and a fudged bit of bookkeeping to reimburse his longtime fixer that was equally as verboten.

Each of the 34 charges carry a potential sentence of four years in prison and a $5,000 fine, although it’s highly unlikely the judge in this case would send an ex-President to jail for these crimes. Even if Judge Juan Merchan wanted to do so, it remains an open question whether the Secret Service could handle a protectee behind bars or what that might do to Trump’s presumptive nomination. Merchan has been upfront from the start that he did not want to be seen meddling in politics. No one is above the law, but bogus bookkeeping mightn’t be the most compelling reason to keep Trump from returning to the campaign trail to face voters as a newly-branded convict.

To say the verdict is one for the history books may sound like hyperbole, but it’s tough to overstate just how many norms were perhaps forever broken with this trial. For one, no former President ever faced criminal charges like this. Ford preemptively pardoned Nixon in the wake of his Watergate-fueled resignation. Clinton agreed to an $850,000 out-of-court legal settlement and other concessions to finally close the book on a probe that started with a hinky land deal back in Arkansas but ended with a national discussion about his alleged sexual dalliances

Trump, meanwhile, is now a felon who could find himself staring down both a jail sentence and a second term as President.

The next developments are uncertain, but some things are all but guaranteed. Trump’s team has argued from the start that the case should never have been brought, and it’s a very good bet they have the draft an appeal at the ready in their war room. Trump will also work to frame the verdict as political payback. From the start, he has cast the New York case—and the three others, to be fair—as a vile abuse of power orchestrated by President Joe Biden against his political rival for the White House in a bitter rematch. At other such moments, Trump’s campaign has successfully parlayed bad days in the legal realm into very, very good ones in fundraising. Many of Trump’s supporters have, to this point, believed Trump’s cry of victimhood and political persecution and opened their checkbooks.

But the political outlook is shakier now. Will Trump’s supporters stick with him now that he’s convicted? The polling suggests there could be some fracturing, but it’s one thing to claim in a survey that an unspecified criminal conviction matters and it’s another to actually ditch a thrice-married, sexual assault-bragging, history-indifferent vulgarian because of a verdict involving actions that may feel like ancient history to many. Trump has spun himself as a warrior for the wronged half of Americans, and Biden’s vulnerabilities are not going to be solved by a Manhattan jury. ​​

For now, Americans will have to take a moment to process that their nation was led by a man now convicted of 34 felony charges. And, if polling in recent months is to be believed, the nation may once again have Trump atop the pecking order by January. The U.S. political system gives roughly 80,000 voters in a handful of swing states the ultimate say on the top of the ballot, while at least 40 states have already been largely written off as solidly partisan. How you think voters will respond to moments as historic as this verdict depends on your reference point. Ford lost his bid to stay in the White House to Jimmy Carter in no small measure due to his Nixon pardon. Then again, Clinton, who never faced voters again after his impeachment, left office with high approval ratings. 

Bush was also at the end of his political career when he chose to rescue Wall Street—and millions of Americans’ retirement funds and mortgages—cementing his reputation as a Republican Benedict Arnold. He told former staffers at a reunion in April 2016 that he worried he was maybe the last Republican to hold the White House in his lifetime. (After witnessing Trump’s rise, he would later regret that wasn’t the case; he tellingly told fellow attendees at Trump’s only inauguration so far that the speech they just heard “was some weird shit.”)

In Trump’s case, we have an election coming up that will tell us something about what this verdict means, but the exact message may be harder to pin down. Historians will debate how someone who once wielded so much power was held to account, and whether it actually helped or hurt his quest to claim it again. Given how Trump had dodged any real consequences for far worse, predictions of Trump’s downfall may rely on a very misguided understanding of the id of the American electorate. This may be the day the Trump comeback became inevitable. Or maybe nothing of the sort happens, and the coming weeks surprise us in wholly unexpected ways. These are the moments when histories are at their richest—and most pliable.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *