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Trump and his allies believe that criminal convictions will work in his favor

Donald Trump’s campaign took flight in the spring of 2023 for the least expected reason: A New York prosecutor indicted him for secretly paying an adult-film actress to hide an alleged adulterous tryst from voters.

Rather than recoil, Republicans showered his campaign with fundraising, attention and rising poll numbers. Even his most bitter party rivals — including former vice president Mike Pence — united behind Trump’s claims of political persecution, which soon became the central selling point of his primary campaign. His own advisers were surprised at the overwhelming support.

Now, one year and 34 felony convictions later, Trump finds himself using the same playbook against the jury’s decision in that same case — to raise money, attract media attention and unite his party.

“If they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone,” Trump declared in a rambling speech that was covered by every major news network in the lobby of his Manhattan condo tower Friday morning. “These are bad people.”

The only difference is the audience that will determine his future. With 158 days until Election Day, he is fighting for a plurality of 30 million voters in seven battleground states — a far cry from the tens of thousands of Iowa party activists he courted a year ago. His advisers have long feared that a felony conviction could hurt Trump with independent voters, particularly skeptical suburban women. In places such as the Atlanta suburbs, those voters cost him the 2020 election.

“The party has rallied around him. They set the stage early on during the trial to call this a sham proceeding. But the bottom line is this cannot be helpful to Donald Trump,” said Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas who ran against Trump in the GOP primary and embraced the jury’s verdict Thursday. “If you are trying to expand your voting bloc, this doesn’t get you anywhere. He is just trying to hold his voting bloc together.”

The Biden campaign has, for the moment, done little to celebrate Trump’s conviction, and most advisers expect little immediate movement in the polls given all that is already known about Trump by the voting public. President Biden used the moment to position himself at the White House as a defender of the judicial system.

“It’s reckless, it’s dangerous and it’s irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don’t like the verdict,” Biden said. “The justice system should be respected, and we should never allow anyone to tear it down.”

But that has not stopped Trump, as he did in April 2023, from reaping the rewards of a criminal status that once banished politicians from public life. His immediate financial worries appear to have been solved by a one-day, $53 million online fundraising haul — a record for him that seems likely to be matched or nearly so when he is sentenced later this summer. The National Republican Senatorial Committee said it had its best online fundraising day of the cycle Thursday, raising about $350,000 with appeals tied to the verdict, according to a person familiar with the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Many of his longtime rivals within the GOP have once again rallied to his defense. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who has pledged not to support Trump’s reelection, denounced the case against him as a politically targeted prosecution. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a critic of Trump for much of the last two years, also declared that the charges should not have been brought.

“I expect the conviction to be overturned on appeal,” he said in a statement.

Trump’s team was closely watching Republicans who criticized him for the verdict — and calling them out. The House and the Senate have both been largely purged of Trump’s critics, partially due to his vengeance campaigns against those who criticize him.

There was no talk among the party’s 168 members, party officials or advisers of trying to remove him from the ballot as there was in 2016 after a recording surfaced showing Trump boasting of his ability to grope women because of his fame, according to four people involved in the party. Trump has spent the last several months taking control of the Republican National Committee, with his aides questioning employees about whether they agree with Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election and purging some employees viewed as not loyal. A top Republican lawyer was ousted as the party’s chief counsel for comments critical of Trump. Others who attack Trump have faced primaries where he backs a challenger.

Richard Porter, a RNC committee member from Illinois, said there was “less than zero” appetite among party members to back away from Trump.

“Democrats will rue the day that they chose this path,” Porter wrote in a text message. “Their weird hatred of Trump from the moment he came down the golden escalator as a Republican candidate knows no bounds; his candidacy was and is a personal affront to them. So, in the name of ‘saving democracy!’ they do great damage to our democracy.”

Former Maryland governor Larry Hogan (R) — who agreed to run for Senate this year after a temporary truce was brokered with Trump for the Republican primary — was one of the only GOP officials to defend the unanimous finding of 12 Manhattan jurors that Trump had falsified business records.

“At this dangerously divided moment in our history, all leaders — regardless of party — must not pour fuel on the fire with more toxic partisanship,” Hogan said in a statement. “We must reaffirm what has made this nation great: the rule of law.”

Chris LaCivita, a top Trump campaign adviser, immediately responded, using Hogan’s utterance as an opportunity to enforce party discipline. “You just ended your campaign,” he wrote on social media.

More than almost any campaign in modern history, the Trump 2024 effort has been subject to forces beyond his immediate control. His advisers and lawyers believe they have done the best they can at eroding trust in the prosecutors who are investigating him, with a full-throttle plan aimed at both torching and slowing down the proceedings.

In recent months, he has faced civil judgments for business fraud in New York state and for defamation against a woman whose claims of sexual assault by Trump had been found credible by a different jury.

He faces two other federal criminal proceedings: obstructing a federal investigation into alleged mishandling classified records and conspiracy to obstruct the transfer of power after the 2020 election. He also faces criminal charges in Georgia related to his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election result in that state. The result in November is likely to determine whether Trump ever faces judgment in the outstanding federal cases, as his advisers do not expect him to face another trial before the election and he could stop his own federal prosecutions as president.

There was no big reaction to the verdict Thursday at Trump’s campaign headquarters in West Palm Beach, Fla., according to Trump advisers, even as the campaign began releasing prepared graphics that declared, “I am a political prisoner.” One person described his longest serving advisers as “numb” after so many investigations, indictments and impeachments and the focus was more on the fundraising. His top advisers, including LaCivita and Susie Wiles, were not even in New York on Thursday.

“Voters in our key target states have already made up their minds on this trial. Most voters, especially our supporters, believe the case is politically motivated and a conviction would be the result of a biased show trial,” Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio wrote in a memo circulated to reporters. “Biden’s voters will believe President Trump is guilty no matter what. And those in the middle are largely unconcerned and their votes aren’t going to hinge on the results of the trial.”

Campaign aides say they are eager now to return to a more normal campaign schedule, after weeks of Trump being sequestered in a New York courtroom. The verdict is likely to reverberate in down-ballot races as well, where it is likely to further polarize the electorate.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is running for reelection in a state Trump is expected to easily win, released only a vague statement saying that he “respects the judicial process and believes everyone should be treated fairly before the courts.” His campaign has not clarified whether it believed the New York hush money trial had been “fair.”

At the same time, many of the Republican House members in districts won by Biden had refrained from any comment on the trial result by Friday afternoon. The list of those silent included Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Rep. Tom Kean Jr. (N.J.) and four California Republicans — David G. Valadao, Mike Garcia, Young Kim and Michelle Steel. One Democratic member of Congress in a swing state said that the party did not know how voters would process it, and that this Democrat was hearing from some in labor unions who believe Trump was treated unfairly.

Trump, meanwhile, intends to continue to pitch himself as a martyr and victim, a posture he has found most electrifies his own supporters and donors. On Thursday night, he called allies and said the verdict was expected, and that he will still win the presidency, a person who spoke with him said.

He was already talking with advisers about how he could use his sentencing three days ahead of the Republican National Convention to glean support.

“It’s driven up the poll numbers unbelievably,” Trump told donors at a fundraiser in New York this month, bragging about how he’d handled the case.

Marianna Sotomayor and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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