Now it’s Donald Trump vs the American justice system… but who will voters support?

When the former president was found guilty on all counts, he described the verdict as ‘rigged’ and raged against the ‘conflicted’ judge. He is unlikely to go to prison, but it is the American voters who will deliver the final verdict, says Mary Dejevsky

Friday 31 May 2024 14:27 BST
After the jury’s guilty verdict, Donald Trump declared the whole process had been engineered by the Biden administration to keep him out of the White House
After the jury’s guilty verdict, Donald Trump declared the whole process had been engineered by the Biden administration to keep him out of the White House (EPA)

With unanimous “guilty” verdicts handed down by the New York jury on all 34 charges against him, Donald Trump becomes the first former US president to have a criminal conviction.

Were he to win the presidency in November with the conviction still standing, he would also be the first to enter the White House as someone the Americans term a “felon”.

Trump can rail as he likes. And he did, hard on the heels of the verdict, lambasting the judge as “corrupt”, the trial as “rigged” and the whole process as being engineered by the Biden administration to keep him out of the White House.

But the speed of the jury’s decision and the sweeping nature of the verdict will be hailed by his opponents as proof, were any more needed, of his unfitness for office.

A statement put out by President Biden’s campaign within minutes of the verdict said just that, emphasising at the same time that it meant no one was above the law.

These are undoubtedly plus points for the administration and for Joe Biden’s re-election bid. Whether Trump’s conviction will translate into any more votes for Biden in November, however, is another matter.

First, Trump is almost certain to appeal, although there may not be time for it to be heard before the election. Second, Americans seem to have made up their minds about Trump – for and against – long before this trial.

But third because, as with quite a few of Trump’s statements, including some of his least diplomatic utterances as president – remember him ridiculing North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, about the comparative sizes of their nuclear buttons? – there is some truth to what he says.

And the grain of truth here, and throughout the trial, lies in Trump’s accusation that the case was unfair – a word he used as the jury was starting its deliberations – and that it was politically motivated. Part of the unfairness, from Trump’s point of view, is that the trial was held in Democrat-dominated Manhattan, which arguably skewed the pool of potential jurors even before the prosecution whittled them down further. Trump had wanted the trial moved to another jurisdiction, but this was refused; it could be a point of appeal.

The point about political motivation is harder to isolate, because even if there was genuinely no political motivation and the decision to prosecute was made entirely on points of law, there was, and is, a political effect.

But the timing of the trial inevitably gave it more than a political tint, while the statement issued by the Biden campaign – not Biden as president, but Biden as re-election hopeful – may be seen as unwise in having seized almost hungrily on the verdict to score political points. Both Biden and Trump linked the verdict to the election in their responses.

Politics may be seen not just in the time and the place of the trial, but that it happened at all. Would the case have been brought had Trump not been making another presidential run, or might it rather have been buried in an out-of-court settlement?

Would the salacious details of an alleged affair have been rehearsed in court in a trial about false accounting, or was this for electoral effect? Were there some who saw the court case as an additional theatre for election campaigning, and even if not, could it be perceived in this way?

The selection of jurors, as it commonly is for US trials, is a key part of the process – and New York, let it not be forgotten, is a Democratic city and state.

The jury advantage was thought certain to go the other way, had Bill Clinton ever been tried for lying about his relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. It was said then that there was no way a Washington DC jury would convict someone who had been a Democratic president.

The potential for the law to be used for a political purpose is a reason why US presidents, and other elected office-holders, are impeached before being brought to trial. This recognises that the process is, one way or another, bound to be political. But, of course, this does not extend to those no longer in office, or seeking office again.

Although the US makes great play of its constitutional separation of powers, as between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, however, the practice of Congress or the president being able to appoint a special counsel or prosecutor can muddy the waters. Clinton’s legal problems began not with Lewinsky, but with the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate a land deal in his home state of Arkansas. One thing led to another, and special prosecutors became tools in the political game.

Arguably, Trump’s problems began when he was still president, with the appointment of a special prosecutor and impeachment over the January 6 riot. That is one of three more criminal cases he faces, the others relating to classified documents kept at his Florida residence and an alleged attempt to influence the election results in the state of Georgia.

The good news for Trump – and there still is some – is that the potentially most damaging cases will not come to court before the election, and the New York verdict will probably not send him to prison.

It could actually work to his advantage. Even before leaving court, Trump had launched an appeal for campaign funds, describing himself as a “political prisoner”. In the past, Trump’s ratings have only risen in proportion to what he presents as his persecution by the establishment – and there is no reason why this should change. The ultimate verdict, the one Trump cares about above all else, will be delivered in November, and this verdict cements his position as the underdog, the outsider; which could be an advantage at the ballot box.

The fury with which the US administration greeted the International Criminal Court’s recent request for arrest warrants against Israel’s leaders over the war in Gaza, although paired with a similar request against the leaders of Hamas, only underlined the degree to which justice in the US may have a more political component than it has, or is seen to have, in many other countries. This is why it may not be only Trump and Trump-loyalists challenging the quality of US justice in the light of the New York verdicts, but many Americans who have had brushes with the law in the past and been left for whatever reason aggrieved.

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