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Analysis-Hush money trial could help Trump in 2024 presidential race

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Analysis-Hush money trial could help Trump in 2024 presidential race
April 16, 2024
Tim Reid - Reuters

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) - When Donald Trump was indicted a bit more than a year ago over hush money paid to a porn star, it turbocharged the Republican's presidential campaign. He surged ahead of his rivals for the White House nomination, gaining a lead he never relinquished.

Trump went on trial in New York on Monday, seven months before Americans will go to the polls on Nov. 5 to choose a president. The history-making trial, the first of a former U.S. president, could again boost Trump's presidential bid, some analysts and political strategists said.

While opinion polls suggest roughly a third of Republican voters would not vote for Trump if he is convicted of a crime, the hush money trial is considered by many legal experts to be the weakest of the four criminal cases he faces.

Trump has used the looming trial to reinforce a central campaign message that his supporters have embraced: He is the victim of a two-tier justice system that favors Democrats and discriminates against Republicans, and that Democratic incumbent Joe Biden is trying to knock him out of the race.

Trump is using the trial to energize his supporters and - with legal bills mounting - raise more money from them to take on a much-better funded Biden. A hung jury or an acquittal would hand a major political victory to the former president.

"This is an outrage," Trump said before entering the New York state courtroom on Monday. "This is political persecution."

As jury selection begun, his campaign sent a fundraising text message to supporters saying, "The Biden trial against me has begun. They're after YOU - and I'm the only thing standing in their way."

The New York case is not a federal trial - it was brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg - so the Biden administration is not involved. The Justice Department says it is acting without political bias in the two federal prosecutions Trump faces.

Rick Hasen, a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law and a critic of Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat, called the hush money charges against Trump "so minor" they risk undermining the importance of the more serious cases he faces, including state and federal charges related to his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 result.

Hasen said once voters actually look at the details of this case, many will view it skeptically.

"And for his supporters, Trump has set up a no-lose situation," Hasen said. "He will say a conviction will be more evidence that the deep state and the justice system is arrayed against him. And if he's acquitted, he can claim victory."

Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesperson, said the trial was a "political attack" on Trump, claiming it was "election interference." Cheung called the case "a show trial straight out of 1930s Stalinist Soviet Union," adding that voters will back Trump "as he fights against the weaponization and abuse of our judicial system."

`THIS CASE WILL HELP TRUMP`

After Trump was indicted by a New York grand jury in March 2023, many Republicans began rallying around him, viewing the charges as unfair. Reuters/Ipsos polling showed his lead over his then nearest primary rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, widening from 14 percentage points to 26. More than $13 million was raised in the week after the indictment, his campaign said.

New York state prosecutors accuse Trump of falsifying records to cover up a $130,000 payment in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels about a 2006 sexual encounter she has said they had.

Trump has denied having sex with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. He pleaded not guilty last year to 34 counts of falsification of business records.

The case is the first of the four criminal indictments Trump faces to go to trial. It is unclear whether the other three will begin before the Nov. 5 election.

"This case will help Trump, there's no doubt about it," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. He supported DeSantis in the race for the Republican nomination, but says he'll vote for Trump in November.

"It's the weakest of the four cases, it's nakedly partisan, most Republicans see that as do some independents," Feehery said. "Independent voters like fair play. This prosecution is not fair play."

In New York, falsifying business records is a misdemeanor. Bragg is arguing that Trump committed a felony by falsifying those records to further or conceal another crime - by violating election interference or tax laws.

Other analysts said they suspected the case could have little or no impact on the rematch between Trump and Biden, which is expected to be extremely close.

"The specifics of this case are not as damning as the other cases. This election is a toss-up," said Kyle Kondik, a nonpartisan analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The presidential election could be decided by independents in close contests in a handful of swing states. Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who does not support Trump, said if a small number of Republicans and independents turn against the former president because of the trial - especially if he is convicted - that could cost him the election.

"That's a real problem for Trump," Heye said.

(Reporting by Tim Reid; editing by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)

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