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Will Trump's criminal trial help or hurt him?

There’s an excellent chance that the news you watch, read, or hear is going to put the hush-money trial of Donald Trump front and center this week. And it’s not that the start of the trial isn’t news, but . . . when all is said and done, will this trial matter to the 2024 presidential election? I have my doubts.

Back in May 2023, a Manhattan jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll. Then, in January, in a second defamation case, a jury reached a verdict in less than three hours and ordered Trump to pay Carroll $83 million. Then in February, Trump lost a civil-fraud case alleging he fraudulently inflated his wealth for financial gain, and New York State AG Letitia James won a $454 million judgment against him.

By the standards of most Americans, that’s a really devastating trio of verdicts, and yet, Trump’s favorable rating and unfavorable rating in public polling since 2021 are basically two horizontal lines, with minute squiggles from day to day. No matter the day, no matter the pollster, no matter what the former president has said or done, Trump’s unfavorable ratings are almost always in the 50s, and his favorable ratings are in the 40s, occasionally dipping down into the upper 30s.

How flexible are people’s opinions about Trump? He’s been the center of political life almost every day since he descended the escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, and announced he was running for president. My sense is that for about nine out of every ten Americans, their opinion of Trump is locked in. Back in 2016, Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” and he’s probably right. Past legal trouble, settlements, and judgments against Trump — the shuttering of the Trump Foundation, the settlement for the students who said they were duped by Trump University — haven’t had any significant impact on public opinion about Trump. Over the course of his career, Trump has been involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits — contract disputes, casino cases, labor and personal-injury claims, tax cases, defamation allegations. Despite the breathless coverage this week, “Donald Trump is in court today” ranks among the least surprising headlines.

For those who don’t like Trump, those past allegations against him — and his frequent out-of-court settlements — are just more pieces on the mountain of evidence that he is a shady operator, quick to break promises or screw over business partners, and only out for himself. For those who like him, those past investigations are further evidence that everyone is always out to get him, that he lives with a giant bullseye on his back, and that every prosecutor wants to be the one who took down Trump.

Color me skeptical of the notion that a criminal conviction will cause some portion of current Trump supporters to abandon him — even a small portion. After all, guilt in civil trials has had no discernable impact on Trump’s support. Trump’s fanbase has its justifications and excuses lined up — “It’s a political witch hunt.” And in the case of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, the argument is much stronger than usual.

Lesser prosecutors would have been daunted by the prospect of creating a national melodrama and a norm-breaking prosecution of a former president over what is, in essence, a misdemeanor business-records charge.

They would have blanched at having to rely on serial perjurer Michael Cohen as a star witness.

They would have recognized the inherent ambiguity in the question of whether the hush payments to Stormy Daniels were personal payments or campaign expenses.

They would have been reluctant to torture the law to stretch the statute of limitations just far enough to cover the events in question, and would have been too embarrassed by the chronological difficulty involved in arguing that events in 2017 influenced the 2016 election.

And if Bragg’s case falls apart and Trump is acquitted . . . who will change their vote in favor of him? Which voters out there are currently wavering because of charged defendant Trump, but will jump on board the bandwagon for acquitted-in-one-of-four-criminal-cases Trump? Trump’s critics will console themselves that Bragg’s case was the weakest and least consequential.

I don’t want to pooh-pooh the exceptional work of Andy McCarthy or anyone else covering these trials, but when we know the winner of the 2024 election, I don’t know if the verdict in this hush-money trial will turn out to have been much of a factor. I think we’ll be talking about the economy, the border, the chaos overseas, and whatever crazy things Trump and Joe Biden say in the closing weeks and months.

We are in a general election that is the first presidential-campaign rematch since 1956 (Dwight D. Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson), between the oldest-ever president by quite a bit and the oldest-ever presidential challenger by quite a bit. (Trump and Biden are a combined 158 years old.) Biden has been a national political figure since the mid 1970s, and Trump has been a celebrity since the early 1980s.

There is exceptionally little that is new or different in a Biden vs. Trump rematch. That’s one of the reasons there’s such a consistent level of interest in whom Trump selects as a running mate — that person will be the only fresh face on the two major-party tickets.

Trump knows this, which is why he’s eager to build up the suspense as high as possible.

Trump is making the most of the veepstakes, asking guests of his Mar-a-Lago Club here who they like. He is also monitoring the soft auditions—such as the fundraiser speeches—of those thought to be in the mix. People close to Trump say he is enjoying the speculation and feels no pressure to decide quickly. No one person has an inside track, people close to the former president say, and the contest could run up to the GOP convention in July. . . .

The VP spreadsheet is elastic but generally includes a trio of governors: Burgum of North Dakota; Kristi Noem of South Dakota; and Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas. Besides Rubio, other senators in the mix are J.D. Vance of Ohio, Katie Britt of Alabama and South Carolina’s Scott.

Former Housing Secretary Ben Carson has been considered by Trump’s campaign as has Ramaswamy. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York is being looked at, and Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic representative from Hawaii, has intrigued some in Trump’s orbit as a possibility.

The day Trump names his running mate will be one of the few genuinely surprising moments of the 2024 campaign, one that makes people stop and pay attention. All these days in court? My guess is that Americans will shrug and go on with their lives.

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