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Trump Begins the High-Wire Act

The former president’s fight extends beyond the courtroom.

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - August 10, 2022
(James Devaney/GC Images)

The weakest legal case against former President Donald Trump may now be the most important one. It is the first case against Trump to go to trial. It is the first to offer near-daily shots of the presumptive Republican nominee inside a courtroom. It offers the best chance of appending “convicted felon” to Trump’s name, if not putting him in a jail cell, before the election.

Trump’s hush-money trial begins as President Joe Biden appears to have begun to close the gap in their rematch. The latest New York Times/Siena College poll has them virtually tied, with Trump clinging to a 1-point lead. The former president is just 0.2 points ahead of the incumbent in the national RealClearPolitics polling average.


The American people have seen courtroom dramas on this scale before. O.J. Simpson’s death this month reminded the public of a divisive trial that was daytime viewing for millions for months. More recently, there was the legal battle between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. 

Voters are at this point no strangers to Trump trials specifically. No civil judgment against Trump or his businesses has dented his poll numbers. Among Republicans, the numerous indictments across multiple jurisdictions improved those numbers to the point where he went from the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination for the third time to holding an insurmountable lead.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Trump has remained competitive in the general election throughout all the indictments and suits. He has led Biden more often, both nationally and in the top seven battleground states, than at any point in 2020. Overall, Trump’s numbers are better than they have been since he first began running for president nearly nine years ago.

Despite Jan. 6, two impeachments, the 2020 election, the Russia investigation, and the various criminal cases, Trump has at least as good of a chance of returning to the White House as he does of becoming a convicted felon.

One big question is whether it is possible for him to do both. The public polling and some of the primary exit polls suggest there are voters who currently support Trump who will not vote for a convicted felon. These numbers may not only be sufficient to cost Trump the election; they may transform the current competitive race into a more lopsided affair in the Democrats’ favor.


If that is true, then all it takes is for a single Democratic prosecutor in a Democratic jurisdiction with a Democratic-leaning jury pool to find Trump guilty of something—say, one count out of dozens—and it’s game over. For this reason, some of us argued Trump would be an extraordinarily risky general election nominee for the GOP.

It’s a risk Republicans nevertheless decided they wanted to take.

This is in no small part because the legal pile-on against Trump looks manifestly unfair to so many voters who already back him or are still open to doing so. 

The George Soros–connected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg ran on going after Trump. He stretched the law to get around the statute of limitations and to turn misdemeanors into felonies. He stacked charges to get 34 felony counts out of a single incident. And he is basing much of his case on the word of Michael Cohen, the former Trump legal fixer whose words and deeds have already landed him in prison.

It is therefore possible that many people who tell pollsters they wouldn’t vote for a convicted felon would not actually be dissuaded from pulling the lever for Trump if the ex-president’s prosecution was viewed as a partisan charade.

Not everyone sees it this way, of course. There are many people who think Trump has played it fast and loose with his businesses, women, and his election claims for long enough that he deserves some consequences even if many of the legal cases against him are dubious in some particulars.

It’s a question of justice delayed versus justice denied.

Yet how many of these hold-Trump-accountable voters are not already in Biden’s camp? And how many find Biden’s record so wanting that they might once again look past a seedy payment to a porn star? Will that payment be seen as a bigger example of “election interference” than Bragg’s prosecution of a leading presidential candidate during an election year?

The answers to these questions will likely decide who wins in November.