Trump’s officially a convicted felon, but that may not stand in his way

by Doyle McManus

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 criminal counts of falsifying business records in New York is an ignoble first. No former president has ever been tried, much less found guilty, for felonies before.

But Trump’s new status as a convicted felon probably won’t significantly affect his chances of winning the 2024 presidential election.

That, too is a strange historic first: a presidential candidate convicted of felonies, but suffering little if any political damage in the process.

However sensational the charges, which stemmed from hush money payments made to an adult film actress, many voters will react to the Manhattan jury’s decision with a shrug.

The conviction won’t prevent him from staying in the race until election day. If he wins, he stands a good chance of avoiding serious penalties while he’s in the White House.

It won’t be easy to spin a conviction on 34 felony counts as a victory, but there are plenty of ways Trump can mitigate the consequences.

He’ll continue to claim that the charges were flimsy and the process was rigged against him.

If he appeals the verdict, as expected, that will allow him to argue — correctly — that a conviction isn’t final while it’s under challenge. Not incidentally, it will also keep him out of jail, at least for a while.

Why do I say the guilty verdict won’t likely put much of a dent in Trump’s electoral prospects? Because that’s what the smartest political pollsters, Republicans and Democrats, say.

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said the conviction was “unlikely to play a significant role” in the election. “It’s possible that the polls will flutter and then return to where they were. And it’s possible that there won’t be a flutter.”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said the verdict’s impact would most likely be “negligible.”

In an ABC News/IPSOS poll last month, only 16% of Trump’s current voters said they would “reconsider” supporting him if he were convicted in the New York case. A mere 4% said they would definitely stop supporting him. But voters are often poor predictors of their own reactions, the pollsters said.

Many Democrats told pollsters in 1998 that they thought then-President Clinton should resign if he were impeached for lying about a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Mellman noted. But when the Republican-led House of Representatives actually impeached Clinton, his popularity soared.

Trump voters have proved fiercely loyal to their favored candidate, felon or not.

A month before the 2016 presidential election, when a videotape surfaced in which Trump boasted of kissing women without asking and grabbing them “by the pussy,” his poll numbers dropped by only one percentage point and rebounded quickly.

“We have seen, over eight years, a series of events that caused people to say, ‘Surely this time, Trump will lose support.’ But he never really does,” Ayres said.

Trump himself has marveled at the phenomenon. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” he said in 2016. “It’s, like, incredible.”

The presumptive Republican nominee has primed his supporters to ignore a guilty verdict by relentlessly attacking the cases against him as politically motivated.

“If I were trying to design a court case that would be easy for Republicans to dismiss as a partisan witch hunt, I would design the New York case,” Ayres said, noting that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is not only a Democrat, but a vocal Trump critic.

Trump has also shown that constant repetition of even bogus claims can bend public opinion his way.

Case in point: his false claims, long since disproved, that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. A year ago, the Monmouth University Poll found that 68% of Republicans said they believed President Joe Biden won the election through fraud. This year, after Trump spent months denouncing the election at campaign rallies, that number has ticked up to 75%.

Despite the verdict in New York, Trump has scored an important victory in all four of his criminal cases: He and his lawyers, aided by a dose of luck, have succeeded in postponing any final reckoning until after election day.

Six months ago, any of the cases could have threatened his presidential campaign: a federal prosecution stemming from his supporters’ invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; a federal case on charges he illegally retained highly classified documents; a Georgia election interference case; and the New York business fraud case.

Trump has contrived to postpone the trials in three of those cases and will likely appeal his verdict in the fourth. The appeals process would last far beyond the election.

Those delays won’t make the charges go away.

But if Trump wins the election, once he is president he can order the Justice Department to halt the two federal cases. Some career Justice Department officials might refuse to carry out those orders, but a newly inaugurated president will presumably be able to find — or appoint — someone willing to do his bidding.

And under most legal precedent, state courts would put his prosecutions in New York and Georgia on hold while he’s in the White House. If he takes office in January and completes a full term, none of the cases would be decided before 2029, when he’ll be 82.

Being the first former president ever convicted on criminal charges is a dubious achievement, to be sure.

Equally unprecedented — and potentially more damaging to democracy — Trump has given future politicians a dangerous example: He has shown that felony convictions need not stand in the way of success.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at [email protected].