How Trump’s Trial Will Complicate His Campaign—But Not Kill It

Donald Trump’s upcoming criminal trial in New York City is set to derail his presidential campaign until June. But his legal problems could complicate his White House aspirations much longer—and much more severely—as the former president faces the very real prospect of being a convicted felon by the start of the summer, with court sentencing that could actually prevent him from attending the July GOP convention in person.

Trump’s problems can be divided into stark realities and dire possibilities.

What’s a stark reality is that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the former president for faking business records to hide a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, will keep Trump in a courtroom four days a week from April 15 until possibly early June, constraining his ability to campaign.

What’s probable is that if he’s convicted, Trump will likely be due back in court roughly a month later for his mandatory sentencing hearing, timing that overlaps with the three-day Republican convention that starts July 15.

An illustration including former U.S. President Donald Trump

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

At that point, it’s either months or years on travel-limiting probation, or a more daunting scenario: a short stint in a New York state prison.

Of course, if either of those possibilities came to pass, Trump would almost certainly try to use his punishments to his political advantage. As Chris Edelson, a presidential scholar at American University, noted to The Daily Beast, the GOP already sees Trump as “a Christ-like figure.”

“And they could organize the convention with him being absent as a martyr,” Edelson said.

But there are very real implications for a presidential candidate being a convicted felon staring down travel restrictions—or even jail time—as he tries to take back the White House.

The Daily Beast spoke to five presidential scholars who’ve been watching as Trump keeps batting away four criminal cases on his quest to return to the White House. They’re all preparing for what they thought unthinkable: the Republican Party nominating a convicted felon, perhaps even in absentia.

Not that either of those possibilities would affect his nomination anyway, a thought that Bowdoin College government professor Andrew Rudalevige said “strikes me as imminently depressing.”

“If he didn’t attend, what you’d see is some kind of video appearance testifying to his martyrdom,” Rudalevige said. “Given the reaction of the GOP base to his indictments, which has been largely to embrace his victimhood, I don’t know that would make a difference.”

According to half a dozen defense lawyers and former prosecutors who spoke to The Daily Beast, the typical wait between the end of a New York trial and a sentencing hearing is anywhere from two to six weeks. For example, the Trump Organization was convicted of tax fraud on Dec. 6, 2022, and sentenced to pay the maximum allowable $1.6 million fine just 38 days later on Jan. 13, 2023—notably before the very same judge overseeing this case.

That timing means Trump’s fate will be decided just before, or even at the very moment when Republicans officially nominate their candidate for president in 2024. If he’s forced to miss it, he’d break the 92-year tradition of having a leading candidate attend their party’s convention to officially accept the nomination—one that got started in 1932 with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to show up at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

“It’s not necessarily baked into the American tradition that candidates have to attend the convention. Plus, the convention is vastly less important since reforms of 1968, which diminished the role of party organization compared to voters. They’re just pageants now,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.

But Barbara A. Perry, who teaches about the American presidency at the University of Virginia, is bracing for a new low in the country’s history.

“They would just use it as a rallying cry. Instead of ‘lock her up,’ they’d probably shout, ‘Don’t lock him up’ and talk about the ‘deep state,’ Democrats, and ‘Crooked Joe Biden,’” she said.

A grand jury of New Yorkers indicted Trump last year on 34 counts of falsifying business records. Those are first-degree felonies that carry with them the threat of a four-year prison sentence, according to Tess Cohen, a former Manhattan prosecutor. And when the crime is severe enough—like engaging in a cover-up with national implications—a judge could stack them to have the sentence run even longer. But that’s not likely.

“In practice, I can’t imagine the judge imposing a consecutive sentence and would think the judge would not go higher than the 1.33 to 4 [years], which would itself be unusual for a first-time conviction,” she said. “For a non-violent case with no prior convictions at all, incarceration is fairly rare.”

Faking documents is what New York law considers a “Class E” felony, what’s generally regarded as the least serious crime. The state court system indicates the longest possible prison sentence would run four years, though local defense lawyers tend to agree that first-time offenders hit with a non-violent version of this felony tier tend to get as much as a year behind bars to as little as four-year probation or even a “conditional discharge.”

For its part, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has spent months emphasizing the seriousness of this crime and pointed to its routine enforcement of the law, countering Trump’s whining about allegedly being singled out. In court papers this past December, assistant district attorney Christopher Conroy estimated that the DA’s office has been filing new cases with these same charges under Penal Law §175.10 “at an average rate of just under once a week for the last decade.”

Donald Trump speaking to the press outside of a courtroom

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the press in a hallway outside the courtroom at the end of a hearing to determine the date of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on March 25, 2024. Trump faces twin legal crises today in New York, where he could see the possible seizure of his storied properties over a massive fine as he separately fights to delay a criminal trial even further.

Justin Lane/AFP via Getty Images

He pointed to the way the DA’s office cracked down in 2019 on Bank Austria and forced it to pay a $862 million fine for trying to hide the way it dodged Iranian sanctions. There was also the case in which the DA’s office extracted a guilty plea and $2.24 billion in 2015 from the French bank BNP Paribas for processing forbidden transactions to Cuba and elsewhere.

The office worked on both those cases with the Department of Justice. Prosecutors in the past have also targeted several individuals and hit them with state charges for trying to cover up federal crimes—one point of contention in this case, with Trump’s defense lawyers questioning the DA’s ability to build a state-level case when the underlying crime at issue would pertain to federal election law.

When The Daily Beast reached the office on Monday, a spokeswoman reiterated that its prosecutors have charged dozens of people and companies with more than 500 counts of first-degree falsification of business records since DA Alvin Bragg Jr. took office in January 2021.

A point that might temper the accountability-seeking public’s expectations of this case is that the vast majority appear to end with fines, not prison time. And like most criminal cases, they tend to get resolved through guilty pleas, not trials. That reality is reflected in a 2023 analysis conducted by three writers at the New York University legal forum Just Security.

One of those researchers was Norm Eisen, an attorney who previously helped build the case for Trump’s first impeachment and has closely monitored this case—particularly since the work he did for the House of Representatives involved investigating the Stormy Daniels cover up. However, Eisen told The Daily Beast that the facts in Trump’s case stand out because of the severity of the underlying crime—lying to the entire nation.

A photo of Donald Trump sitting in a courtroom


Former president Donald Trump (C) and attorney Susan Necheles (R) attend a hearing to determine the date of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on March 25, 2024. Trump faces twin legal crises today in New York, where he could see the possible seizure of his storied properties over a massive fine as he separately fights to delay a criminal trial even further.

Photo by JUSTIN LANE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a point the former ambassador has made over and over again: that this case has been improperly cast as a hush money case when it’s really an election interference trial of the highest magnitude.

“Those who are saying confidently these cases are typically misdemeanors and don’t lead to prison are just wrong,” Eisen said.

The judge overseeing the case indicates he understands full well what the real case is about. On Monday, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan referred to the case as arising “from allegations that [Trump] attempted to conceal an illegal scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election.” The fact that any eventual sentence is entirely up to the judge makes it all the worse for Trump, given that Merchan was only forced to write that gag order to stop Trump from publicly threatening and intimidating the judge’s own daughter.

“He definitely faces a significant risk of incarceration,” Eisen asserted, noting his own familiarity with the evidence, which includes checks signed by Trump himself that form the paper trail that leads from him straight to the middleman he used to arrange the secret deal, Michael Cohen.

Manhattan prosecutors will have to prove to a jury that Trump faked Trump Organization business records to recast Cohen’s reimbursement as legal fees, all with the intention to hide what he was really doing: silencing a woman from going public about their one-night stand in 2006. But if they manage to do that and decide to convict him, Eisen said, the judge will be free to bring down the hammer with immense force.

“The evidence is powerful that Trump is responsible for all of the falsification. That presents a very unflattering picture on sentencing, and so he’s at substantial risk of being sentenced to jail time,” Eisen said.

However, prosecutors won’t actually have to prove that Trump committed the underlying election crime, as confusing as that sounds. The DA’s office didn’t technically charge him with that, in part because that would be a federal matter. In this case, the cover-up isn’t worse than the crime; it is the crime.

This kind of case construction has worked before. In 2016, a Rochester jury acquitted Jason D. Holley of insurance fraud—but still managed to all agree that he’d engaged in a cover-up, convicting him of falsifying business documents.

New York Supreme Court Justice J. Scott Odorisi sentenced him to three years probation, and a panel of five state judges held it up on appeal. They reasoned that the “not guilty” verdict on fraud “did not necessarily negate an essential element” of the paper crime. In other words, the jury could still nail him on the cover-up if it concluded the man “had intended to commit or conceal another crime, even if he was not convicted of the other crime.”

While the timing of that potential sentencing will once again knock him off the campaign trail and maybe even force him to skip out on the Republican convention in Milwaukee, what it isn’t likely to do is actually send him behind bars before Election Day.

Eisen, two former prosecutors, and every political scientist interviewed for this story all expect that Trump will immediately appeal the conviction—and unlike the average criminal defendant who has to show up to prison, he would likely be able to ride this out, as a free man, while the case makes its way past New York’s First Judicial Department, its top-end and confusingly named Court of Appeals, then straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trump, like his former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is doing right now, might be able to delay any actual punishment—even if it’s something as trivial as probation—for years while his lawyers pound away on appeals.

That raises the specter of having Trump in the White House, leading the entire U.S. government with a vague threat of one-to-four years in prison somewhere at the tail-end of his presidency—if, as some professors noted, he ever intends to give it up.

Edelson, the presidential scholar, said Trump’s lack of good character flies in the face of everything the country’s founders envisioned would make a worthy executive-in-chief.

“Whether he’s sentenced or convicted or even in prison, he’s allowed to keep running. What happens if he wins? No one knows,” Edelson said. “It’s a crazy situation to be in. In any functioning democracy, he wouldn’t be running. He wouldn’t have been if the Senate had convicted him. They could have just disqualified him from running. It’s just absurd.”

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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