Feb 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Trump's conviction scenario

Illustration of Donald Trump's silhouette within a spotlight flanked by two empty spotlights.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Former President Trump is breezing to the GOP nomination — but, in private, is bracing for the genuine possibility that he'll be the first convicted felon in U.S. history to represent a major party.

Why it matters: Sources tell us Trump believes he'd likely be convicted if the Jan. 6 case comes to trial later this spring in Washington. If that's delayed, he could face a guilty verdict in the Manhattan hush-money case.

  • Trump thinks he could still win the White House — partly by making daily, theatrical appearances whenever courts are hearing his four cases, totaling 91 felony charges. But his advisers worry independents will be turned off by a conviction in a jury trial.

State of play: U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the Jan. 6 case, has been tough on Capitol rioters tried in her court, and has signaled she'll cut Trump no breaks. Jurors will be drawn from D.C., which is overwhelmingly Democratic.

  • Some Trump lawyers once saw it as highly likely that the case would come to trial before the Republican convention in Milwaukee in July. But with all their maneuvering, including claiming that the former president is immune from prosecution, a delay is looking more likely by the day.
  • The case was to begin March 4. But the trial has now been dropped from a public court calendar, The Washington Post reported Thursday. Appeals could push the trial into late spring or summer. And the closer a trial date gets to Election Day, the less likely it is to occur.
  • What's now more likely: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has accused Trump of buying the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels, may fill the vacuum by beginning his trial as soon as March 25. Bragg has begun trying to add urgency and heft to his case by rebranding it as election interference, The New York Times reported last week.

Between the lines: Those two cases, in D.C. and Manhattan, are the two likely to have the juries most hostile to Trump. The other two are in Georgia and Florida.

Courtroom drama plan

We're told Trump plans to attend his trials in person most days, as has been his recent practice for recent court proceedings. That by itself would mean a massive change in the rhythms of a presidential campaign: Nominees typically spend their days trying to sway voters, not jurors.

  • He'll rail against the judge, the charges and the timing. Part of this would be true anger, according to people who talk to him. But a big part of the courtroom theatrics would be political.

Trump feels certain the more voters think this is a political pile-on, the better he'll do. So look for Trump to continue to groan, moan and bemoan — then hit the TV cameras parked outside.

  • One ally explained that by spending so much time in court, Trump is making a virtue of necessity. "You can't be defensive or never talk about it, because that just makes you look guilty," the ally said. "Your only option is to play it up."

What we're hearing: Trump's team feels certain that the indictments helped him own the GOP primary field. Each new set of charges brought a surge in donations, and a bump in polls.

  • Trump advisers say he was energized by the fight: When he first launched his campaign, he didn't have a battle cry like "build that wall" in 2016. Now, he has a theory of the case: Defeat the corrupt establishment — the "deep state," as he puts it.

Reality check: Despite Trump's bluster, there's real trepidation among his advisers about what a conviction would mean. The Trump team comforts itself that independent-minded voters won't like the idea of a Democratic administration prosecuting the Republican nominee.

  • A source close to Trump's team said: "When things shift to the general-election dynamic, with razor-thin margins, and you're trying to convince people who are unhappy with President Biden but are deeply skeptical of Trump personally — a conviction doesn't help persuade those people."
  • In private, Trump lashes out at the prosecutors — raging that, once again, the system is rigged against him. And his team has tried every possible legal maneuver to delay the trials. "If he really thought it was a good thing, he wouldn't be so unhinged," the source said.

The risk

Polls show voters, especially swing voters, will view Trump differently if he's convicted by a jury of his peers.

  • In seven swing states that will make up the most consequential fall battlegrounds, a Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll out this week found more than half of registered voters would be unwilling to vote for Trump if he were convicted of a crime (53%) or sentenced to prison (55%).
  • A poll of six swing states by The New York Times and Siena College in October found 6% of voters would switch their votes to Biden if Trump were convicted and sentenced — "enough, potentially, to decide the election," The Times reported.
  • But Trump's hold on the GOP could prove impregnable even to conviction. A national Yahoo News/YouGov poll out Thursday found that 72% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters think any conviction would be "an unfair outcome meant to damage [Trump] politically."

The other side: This is Biden's big bet: The belief inside the White House is that many voters won't vote for a convict — especially if the case is about the storming of the U.S. Capitol and attacks on cops.

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