Trump’s political future could be impacted by the outcome of the hush-money trial

Donald Trump has a tendency to avoid trouble. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found Russia helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, but Trump dodged a criminal charge for publicly encouraging Russia to do so. He was impeached twice—once for allegedly using the presidency to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, and again for whether he was culpable for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss and inciting a deadly riot. Senate Republicans acquitted him both times. He’s faced civil lawsuits over the violent attack on Jan. 6, 2021 and has appealed $88.3 million in judgements awarded to author E. Jean Carroll in two defamation verdicts against him.

But starting Monday, things will be different for the former President. For the first time, Donald Trump will be on trial in a criminal court.

With jury selection getting underway in Manhattan this week, Trump faces 34 felony counts of allegedly falsifying business records to hide hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels weeks before the 2016 election. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison, or a total of 136 years.

A criminal verdict against Trump in the New York hush-money case could have real political consequences for Trump as he runs for a second term. (While Trump faces charges in two federal investigations and one other state case, the New York hush-money trial is the only one likely to get underway—let alone return a verdict—before the election.) Polling shows that a segment of Republican voters would turn on Trump if he’s convicted, which could be significant in battleground states where victory in the 2020 election was decided by just tens of thousands of votes. Among Republicans currently planning to cast votes for Trump, 13% said that a felony conviction would change their minds and lead them to not vote for him in November, according to a Reuters/Ipsos conducted at the beginning of April. Nearly a quarter of Republicans in the poll said they would not vote for Trump if he was serving time in prison at the time of the election.

That shows real political downside for Trump as his New York trial begins. “In an election that is going to be as close as this one, even very small numbers of loss of support matters,” says Chris Jackson, senior vice president and head of polling at Ipsos. “The poll overall suggests that these trials are a risk factor for the former President.”

The poll also found that most American voters don’t buy Trump’s efforts to minimize the charges he faces as baseless and politically motivated. A majority of Americans consider all of the charges against Trump to be “somewhat serious” or “very” serious, the poll found. The poll found that 64% of voters think the hush-money charges are serious.

The trial represents a stunning and unprecedented test of the American legal and political system. Never before has a former President faced criminal charges. If Trump is convicted—even if he’s serving time behind bars—nothing would prevent him from continuing his campaign for President, though it would almost certainly spur significant legal challenges.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case focuses on Trump’s efforts to hide a sex scandal weeks before the 2016 election. At issue are 34 instances of business records that Bragg alleges were faked to hide payments to Daniels for her to stay silent about a previous sexual encounter. Bragg’s case bumps the charges up to felonies from misdemeanors because he is seeking to prove that the falsified entries were covering up federal election crimes.

The central part of the case “is not money for sex,” Bragg said in a WNYC New York Public Radio interview in December. “We would say it’s about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up,” he said.

Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels, and pleaded not guilty to falsifying the business records. He described the New York hush-money case as a “Witch-Hunt” and Bragg’s team of Manhattan prosecutors as “Thugs and Radical Left Monsters.”

Trump and Republican strategists maintain the New York case and others against him are helping him with voters who share his sense of grievance. Trump’s supporters “will just dismiss this as a partisan witch hunt designed by a Democrat to get a Republican presidential candidate,” says Republican strategist Whit Ayres. The fact that the Manhattan hush-money trial—which, unlike the other cases against him, doesn’t concern core conduct during his presidency—is starting before the other cases is a “gift” to Trump, Ayres says. “It will allow him to make a case that is going to be compelling not just to MAGA Republicans but to softer Republicans and independents—that it’s all a setup,” he says.

As the jury selection and trial get underway, Trump’s appearances at the courthouse could give him more time in front of the cameras and more chances to paint Bragg, who was elected to office in 2021, as a politically-motivated prosecutor. He’s repeatedly used his indictments to increase his appeals for political donations. His campaign raised $7 million in the three days after he was indicted in New York.