Presidential felony: On the Trump verdict

Trump’s legal travails could polarise public discourse ahead of election 

Updated - June 01, 2024 06:38 am IST

Published - June 01, 2024 12:20 am IST

Donald Trump is now the first ever former U.S. President to become a convicted felon after a New York state jury returned a guilty verdict for all 34 charges in the case relating to hush money that he paid to adult film actor Stormy Daniels in 2016. Trump has thus been found guilty not only of the relatively less serious charge of falsifying business records — which stemmed from the $1,30,000 reimbursement that he settled with his former lawyer Michael Cohen after the payout to Ms. Daniels following their alleged affair in 2006 — but also the damaging charge of election fraud linked to his attempt to hide such information from voters on the eve of the 2016 election. The judge has set sentencing for July 11, just ahead of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, where party leaders are expected to nominate Trump as their candidate for the presidential race. While the charge of falsifying business records is punishable by potentially four years in prison, at the sentencing hearing it is likely that, considering Trump’s age of 77 years, the lack of a previous conviction and non-violent nature of the crimes, the judge may simply impose a fine or probation. Although the allegations in three other criminal indictments that he faces, relating to federal and state charges of interference in the 2020 election, and the mishandling of classified documents, carry more severe sentences, those cases are bogged down in appeals and are unlikely to enter the trial phase before the November 5 election.

Under the U.S. constitution, the only conditions that presidential candidates would have to meet to seek election to the Oval Office are that they must be a natural born citizen, be at least 35 years old, and must have been a U.S. resident for at least 14 years. In this context, the New York conviction does not bar Trump from continuing his run as a presidential candidate. Further, it is possible that, even if he is sentenced to time in prison in one or more of the criminal cases, he could govern from behind bars. The more troubling question relates to the polarising effect that his legal travails might have on the public discourse. Reports are suggesting that the guilty verdict appears to be “… helping to unify the Republican Party’s disparate factions as GOP officials across the political spectrum rallied behind their embattled presumptive presidential nominee…” Equally, poll surveys in swing States earlier this year had suggested that 53% of voters would not vote for Trump if any of his criminal cases resulted in a conviction. November 2024 might be the best and final opportunity that American voters will have to decide on whether, after all, they consider Trump fit to lead their nation.

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