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Trump’s increasingly charged criminal trial

Welcome to The Campaign Moment, your guide to the biggest developments in a 2024 election that could be decided in a courtroom.

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A former president of the United States is on criminal trial for the first time in American history as of this week. It’s been a long time coming.

And while the early proceedings in Donald Trump’s Manhattan “hush money”/election-interference case have been somewhat sleepy — quite literally if you’re Trump — the stage is being set for one of the most consequential legal clashes in American political history. As a quick reminder: The case has to do with hush money payments Trump’s lawyer made to an adult-film actress to keep her quiet weeks ahead of the November 2016 election and whether he falsified business records to cover it up.

You can read the blow-by-blow of all the significant legal maneuverings during jury selection from Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

As for the politics? Here are my early thoughts.

Trump’s antics threaten to boil over, with major political — and societal — implications.

The verdict is obviously important, for reasons we’ll get to. But how we get there could also reverberate greatly.

The trial is quickly shaping up to be the culmination of Trump’s years-long assault on a justice system that has long scrutinized him. And there’s increasing reason to believe the situation could get ugly:

Trump’s courtroom antics are increasing, including what the judge interpreted Tuesday as a possible attempt to intimidate a juror. “He was audibly gesturing, speaking in the direction of the juror,” New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan said. “I won’t tolerate that.”Trump has repeatedly flouted gag orders barring him from attacking the judge’s daughter and witnesses, resulting in the judge setting a hearing on the subject next week. Trump has said it would be his “great honor” to go to jail for violating the gag order.Even after the scene with the juror Tuesday, Trump on Wednesday promoted the remarks of Fox News host Jesse Watters, who accused prospective jurors of being “undercover liberal activists.” Trump is barred from making public comments about jurors and prospective jurors. Prosecutors included the post in claiming seven more gag order violations Thursday morning.

We’re already seeing how all of this could matter. A juror whose biographical details were aired by media outlets — and scrutinized by Watters — raised concerns Thursday, citing how people were able to identify her. (Jurors in the case are being kept anonymous.) She was dismissed from the panel.

The play here is obvious. Trump wants to make clear that he will make life hard for anybody who might help deliver an adverse verdict. And Trump will push limits in ways that leaves the judge in the case with some very difficult decisions; imagine a situation in which the judge feels compelled to actually jail Trump. (As has been noted, Trump’s actions probably wouldn’t be tolerated from basically any other defendant.)

To the extent this can be turned into a circus, perhaps people will dismiss it. Or perhaps it will draw even more interest and people will see in Trump’s actions what they previously found unappealing in him.

Americans by and large don’t buy into Trump’s claims that this is a “witch hunt,” as I wrote this week. But even some who don’t believe that do harbor some concerns about the process, and this case in particular. Trump is now forcing the issue in a major way, and how Americans regard the legal process and his conduct could matter greatly.

This case is less of a threat than the others. But.

This case is objectively the one that Americans are the least concerned about. A poll this week showed just one-third thought Trump had broken the law — double-digits less than in his other three indictments. And about the same number regard the charges as “very serious.”

But voters are also being reminded about a situation they have overwhelmingly found to be unsavory. About 8 in 10 said Trump at least did something wrong when the 2016 hush money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels were first in the news back in 2018. And polling has shown as many as 7 in 10 say it’s a crime to pay someone to remain silent about an issue that could affect an election (which is basically the substance of the charges).

Also, even that Associated Press-NORC poll showed 50 percent of voters said a conviction in this case would render Trump unfit for office. Just 29 percent said it wouldn’t matter.

We’ve also seen in polls that a potentially decisive number of Americans say they’d flip their votes if Trump is convicted of a crime. Whether that would hold — and on this case, specifically — is a huge question.

Democrats’ hands-off approach could be tested.

There is a remarkable asymmetry in the political debate over Trump’s criminal trial. While Trump and his allies are all over it, Democrats and the Biden campaign are basically ignoring it.

About the closest the Biden campaign has come to weighing in was a news release this week which slyly included the words “stormy” and “hush” and alluded to Trump nodding off. But it was about abortion.

This is all in keeping with Democrats’ general approach to Trump’s criminal cases. While Republicans have leaped to decry things such as Trump’s indictments and the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022 — often before they know much of anything about the situations — Democrats have generally been content to merely say that “no one is above the law” and leave it at that.

But that’s going to be tested moving forward. The legal system is limited in how it can defend itself, with litigators and judges generally letting their work and courtroom remarks speak for themselves. And at some point, you’d think Democrats would want to drive home Trump’s behavior at the trial and how it’s symptomatic of his chaotic presidency.

Of course, they also might not want to bet too heavily on the outcome of a trial the American people haven’t shown they’re overly concerned about.

One of the most consequential facets of the 2024 election is how Americans have warmed to Trump’s first term. Call it “amnesia” or anything else, but it’s a significant factor. To the extent people continue to remember the grass being greener, that’s likely to weigh significantly on who wins in November.

But it will apparently only take Trump so far.

A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll provides some interesting findings on this front. It finds 49 percent of people retrospectively approve of Trump’s presidency — higher than that number was at virtually any juncture of his actual presidency — and just 40 percent approve of President Biden’s. Voters were more likely by double digits to say Trump accomplished things than that Biden did. And asked to choose directly whether they were better off under Trump or Biden, voters chose Trump 45 percent to 34 percent.

And yet! The poll shows the race deadlocked — 44-44 in a head-to-head, and 42-42 if you include third-party candidates.

Part of that imbalance is probably polarization and Democrats not being enthusiastic about Biden’s presidency — but still opposing Trump. But it’s logical to think it might also owe to Trump’s legal problems and other personal factors.

Whatever the case, it’s worth keeping an eye on — particularly if Democrats can, in fact, drive home what voters disliked about Trump before and drive the above numbers down.

“Trump deploys favorite political tool, social media, as legal cudgel” (Washington Post)“Biden’s handling of Gaza shakes his support in the Black community” (Washington Post)“Trump is overstating the problem of having to be in court” (Washington Post)“The politics of the swiftly dismissed Mayorkas impeachment trial” (Washington Post)“Sheehy apologized and asked for leniency after alleged 2015 gun incident” (Washington Post)“As Civil Rights Era Fades From Memory, Generation Gap Divides Black Voters” (New York Times)“2 of Trump’s jurors are lawyers. Would they acquit on a technicality?” (Politico)

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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