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No one above the law?

​Former US President Donald Trump leaves the courthouse after a jury found him guilty of all 34 felony counts in his criminal trial at the New York State Supreme Court on May 30, 2024.

Former US President Donald Trump leaves the courthouse after a jury found him guilty of all 34 felony counts in his criminal trial at the New York State Supreme Court on May 30, 2024.

JUSTIN LANE/Pool via REUTERS

Speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa in December 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump speculated, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Among the many Trump remarks that jolted the news cycle over the past eight years, this one springs to mind in the aftermath of Trump’s conviction in New York state court on 34 felonies relating to falsified business records.

As is clear from the counts, this is purely a paper crime, as no violence was alleged to have been committed. Still, observers from abroad are left to wonder if the verdict will be just another dynamic of US politics that Trump normalizes – and whether a candidate convicted of felonies could now become the American president.


No constitutional safety breaks

Nothing in the US Constitution precludes Trump from running for president. While each charge carries a maximum of four years in prison, the case will now get tied up in appeals likely to be decided after the election.

According to the current consensus among legal experts, should the convictions stand, any sentencing (scheduled for 11 July) is likely to be weighted more toward fines than prison time. Barring additional unforeseen circumstances, Trump will become the Republican nominee for the US presidency this summer.

This raises the question: What does Trump’s conviction really mean? Is this just a tale full of sound and fury but ultimately signifying nothing?

Biden’s strategy is key

Much now depends on President Joe Biden. This election season has been a bruising one for the current administration, and it is just getting started. Headlines have been filled with news of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict and domestic campus protest movements – neither of which are gaining Biden votes.

According to polling from May, only 34% of registered voters approve of Biden’s approach to the war in Israel. And on inflation and the economy, the top issues among voters, Biden’s outlook is equally grim.

On these leading issues, polling from late May finds that voters trust Trump more than the current president by a double-digit margin. For Trump’s conviction to matter in November, for it to have a half-life beyond the next few weeks, the Biden campaign needs to refocus the attention and capitalize on the potential tailwind offered by the New York conviction by making the election a referendum on Trump and not, as it currently is, a referendum on Biden.

A tight race with few persuadable voters

Otherwise, November’s election will be run amid calcified partisan politics in America. The election will turn on a handful of swing states – Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – where there are just a small number of undecided voters.

According to recent polling, those leaning toward Trump are particularly unlikely to change their minds. Even post-verdict polling has found Republican voters to be “sticky,” with only 16% saying that Trump should end his campaign as a result of the conviction.

Voters standing in the middle may be more flexible, but this election will not just turn on the independents in the center. The greater risk is voters disaffected by a rerun of 2020 stay home – or seek to undermine the electoral process and its results by resorting to political violence. We will likely look back to May 30, 2024, in the election post-mortem, to assess whether the New York conviction moved the needle with these voters.

Trump’s exclusive cohort

And for those observing from abroad and scratching their heads, with a sense of “how can this all be?” it feels only appropriate to point out that Trump, already in a rare group as a state leader, now joins an even rarified, more exclusive cohort – the convicted former leaders club.

From Malaysia’s Najib Razak to South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the world is populated by former leaders who fell afoul of the law mostly on financial or corruption charges. This is also something Europe knows a bit about with former French President Jacques Chirac convicted of corruption in 2011 (four years after he left office) and the specter of the oft-charged, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi still hanging over Italy.

Trump will be hoping that his prospects look like another fellow traveler along this path – current Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula saw his corruption charges related to the massive Operation Lava Jato annulled in 2021, paving the way for his reelection in 2022.

With a staggering $52.8 million of funding coming through the door in the 24 hours post-verdict, including a third sent through by first-time donors, Trump may be feeling like he lost on Thursday but will win on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Dr. Lindsay Newman is the practice head of Global Macro, Geopolitics for Eurasia Group and is based in London. She writes the Views on America column for GZERO.

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