/ 10 June 2024

Behind bars or back in power: Trump’s legal odyssey is uncertain

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 7, 2024 in New York City. Trump has been charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records, which prosecutors say was an effort to hide a potential sex scandal, both before and after the 2016 presidential election.(Photo by Sarah Yenesel-Pool/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s conviction marks a pivotal moment in his post-presidential life, intensifying his legal battles amid a renewed campaign for power. His defiant stance and claims of political persecution are set to deepen the nation’s political divide, heightening tensions as the election season approaches. This high-stakes scenario promises to further polarise an already divided electorate, underscoring the contentious nature of the upcoming political landscape. 

Both the Trump campaign team and his opponent, President Joe Biden, have downplayed the historic conviction’s effect on the election. But the guilty verdict could indeed sway the outcome. The verdict casts a shadow over Trump’s credibility and may affect voter perception. 

The GOP swiftly rallied around its presidential candidate, sending a unifying message to its base. High-ranking Republicans launched strong attacks against the justice system, arguing that the legal actions against Trump are politically motivated to undermine his candidacy. They contend these actions are part of a broader Democratic strategy to influence the 2024 election outcome. Simultaneously, these Republican leaders argue that the election’s outcome will determine the nation’s future direction and the preservation of conservative values. In their statements, they defend Trump and call on supporters to mobilise and participate actively in the electoral process. 

Many GOP leaders seized this moment to make fundraising appeals, urging supporters to contribute to their campaigns and the party. They stressed the importance of financial support to counter political attacks and ensure a robust campaign leading up to November. This strategic push highlights the critical role of grassroots funding in maintaining a competitive edge and driving the party’s success in the upcoming election. Indeed, a significant influx of money began to flow toward the GOP presidential candidate following the verdict. According to Lara Trump, Republican national committee co-chair and the former president’s daughter-in-law, more than $70 million was raised from small-donor contributions in just three days. This substantial fundraising surge demonstrates the solid financial support and loyalty from the party’s grassroots base. 

The pricking question is whether Trump will end up behind bars. The judge has set 11 July as the sentencing date, a moment when the world will discover the former president’s fate. The minimum penalty for first-degree falsification of business records starts at zero, meaning Trump could receive probation or a conditional discharge, avoiding jail time. Conversely, Trump could face up to four years for each offence, though any prison time would probably be served concurrently. Trump might face the prospect of home detention as an alternative to jail time. This would involve wearing an ankle bracelet for electronic monitoring, allowing authorities to track his movements while granting freedoms that jail does not. Serving time at home would permit Trump to continue political activities uninterrupted. He could campaign virtually, using video conferencing to connect with supporters and hold press briefings. It would permit him to remain active on social media, maintaining direct communication with his base. 

He could pursue a delay in serving any sentence by appealing the verdict. This strategy could push back any incarceration until after the election or even further. Despite the hurdles a possible prison sentence might introduce to Trump’s presidential campaign, his conviction doesn’t prevent him from running for office. Thus, his political aspirations remain viable, irrespective of the legal challenges he encounters, keeping his campaign afloat despite the looming legal battles.

Despite Trump’s significant public support and narrow leads in swing state polls, the upcoming weeks will be critical in gauging the effect of his criminal convictions on his campaign. While neither side anticipates these convictions to be determinative, both campaigns agree on their potential significance. The lack of a breakthrough moment for either candidate highlights the absence of decisive momentum and a winning coalition. 

Trump’s conviction cannot be viewed as advantageous in his bid for the presidency. It represents, at the very least, a substantial setback. While it may not singularly ensure Biden’s reelection, it could form a crucial component of a broader message about Trump’s suitability for office, potentially securing victory for the Democrats. 

One thing is clear that the fallout from these convictions will shape the narrative and dynamics of the upcoming election, underscoring the pivotal role they may play in determining the nation’s leadership.

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He is a physician and has a master’s degree in international relations.