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In-depth: Donald Trump and what the indictment means for his political career

In-depth: Donald Trump and what the indictment means for his political career
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By Kenneth Tiven

On Tuesday, former US President Donald Trump entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment in New York City on 34 felony counts related to a sweeping scheme falsifying hush-money payments as official legal costs. His idea was to stop any public details of his extra-marital affairs that could scuttle his 2016
presidential campaign.

This is the first criminal prosecution of a former president in American history, which is not say the first criminal act by an American president. The prosecutors say, Trump repeatedly violated a New York corporate record-keeping law and agreed to break campaign finance laws.

This is the initial legal action from several state and federal investigations regarding the ex-president’s re-election failure in 2020 as well as his post-presidency handling of classified documents. It will surprise no one if these probes result in serious legal charges within the next two months.

Trump is defiant because this brings in cash donations, now totaling millions of dollars. Back home after his day in court he said, ”They thought this baseless and politically charged witch hunt would lead us to end our 2024 campaign… How fitting that I should return home to be LEADING in the polls!”

Not exactly. Support for the ex-president within core Republicans ranks remains strong. However, polls suggest across all American voters he is statistically well-below below 50 percent.

He has also issued scathing social media attacks on the prosecutor, who remains resolute. “We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct that is the bread and butter of our white-collar work,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office released a 14-page statement of facts laying out the case in greater detail.

But where were Melania and Ivanka?

The global question: What does this mean going forward? Trump’s desire to dominate everything and everyone has been a hallmark for more than five decades in business. He has long combined convention-breaking behavior with hyper-partisanship, and mean-spirited invective against enemies, real and perceived. Changing now is almost impossible and something which his passionate fans do not want to see happen.

After his day in court, the TV speech he gave was dismissed as campaign
propaganda and not carried by several TV networks. Trump’s children and supporters were with him but his wife Melania and his eldest child, Ivanka Trump, were missing.

What wrong did Trump do to be criminally charged?

The specific 34 felony charges relate to 11 checks Trump made out to his former lawyer Michael Cohen, previously convicted on similar federal charges.

Falsifying business records is illegal under Article 175 of the New York Penal Law if there is an intent to “commit another crime or to aid or conceal” a crime. The charging documents suggest that prosecutors are relying on witness testimony, business records and a recorded conversation between Trump and his then-attorney Michael Cohen. After the election, prosecutors say, Trump and Cohen concocted a plan to reimburse Cohen for making the hush-money payments. They tried to mask the reimbursement by mixing it with other payments to Cohen so that he could categorize it as income rather than a repayment, according to prosecutors.

If convicted on the felony bookkeeping fraud charges, Trump faces up to four years in prison for each count. The judge could impose consecutive sentences, meaning Trump would have to serve them one after the other.

However, the charge does not carry a mandatory prison sentence. Even if convicted on all counts, Trump would not necessarily face jail time. As a first-time offender with no criminal record, legal experts say, it is uncertain whether the former president and 2024 candidate would be sentenced to prison if convicted.

Trump is legendary for stretching out any legal issue involving his company and expectations are that he will do the same with this case. His campaign future depends on other potential state and federal legal actions. In most US states incarceration for a criminal conviction causes a loss of voting rights, but no criminal conviction prevents running for president.

Supporters rally behind Trump in New York

At a rally for Trump in New York, the Republicans who didn’t show up said as much about the modern GOP as those who did. In a Manhattan park that served as a staging ground for America’s deepest political divisions on Tuesday, a Donald Trump impersonator posed for photographs in an orange jumpsuit, while nearby, a man waving a blue “Keep America Great” flag declared, “Trump is a little bit like Jesus.” “We will rebuild, we will restore and America will be reborn. Mark my words,” one demonstrator shouted into a bullhorn. He was followed by a woman who likened the
indictment of the former president to actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

But if the pro-Trump rally showed the Republican base’s support for the 45th president, it also suggested its limitations. While polling, fundraising and public displays of enthusiasm indicate the indictment is emboldening Trump’s MAGA supporters, there is no evidence yet it has helped expand his political base. In fact, many Republicans have expressed fears it may ultimately damage his prospects with the swing voters the GOP needs to win the White House in 2024. In New York on Tuesday, those absent from the rally said as much as those who attended.

The faltering faithful

Two New York congressional Trump loyalists — Reps. Elise Stefanik and Claudia Tenney — hosted a public demonstration of support elsewhere in New York. Newly-elected Rep. George Santos — infamous for lying about most elements of his identity during his campaign last year — walked by the courthouse to defend Trump with the lament that the indictment “cheapens the judicial system.”

In reality, the rush of the far-right to Trump’s side may come at a cost should he win the nomination. In the midterms in 2018, in the presidential election of 2020 and again in midterm 2022 the GOP failed to deliver any “red wave” blow to Democrats.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist, said while, “Republicans may, at least in the short term, rally, in a general election sense, this is a guy who lost the general election in 2020, and after this indictment and with other legal problems looming, do Republican voters start to see him as having too much baggage.”

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