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30 May 2024updated 31 May 2024 9:57am

Donald Trump, guilty but not out

The former president has been convicted in a criminal trial. He could still win the White House.

By Jill Filipovic

Donald Trump is now a convicted felon. On 30 May, a Manhattan jury found the former US president guilty on 34 counts of falsifying business records. Trump is the first US president to be convicted of a crime and faces up to four years in prison. He will be sentenced on 11 July, just days before the Republican National Convention begins on 15 July. 

It’s an extraordinary moment: not only has a former president been convicted of nearly three dozen felonies, but the Republican Party is now running a criminal for the presidency – and selected him after these and other charges were filed, and after he was found liable for sexual abuse by a civil court.  

Trump is certainly a felon among friends: “He joins his campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, national security adviser, foreign policy adviser, political consultant, and personal lawyer as felons,” political author Stuart Stevens tweeted shortly after the verdict came down. The man the GOP seeks to reinstall in office is a criminal whose previous campaign and administration was made up of other criminals.  

More extraordinary still is that this conviction seems unlikely to matter electorally to those same Republican voters who claim to care about morality, want to “drain the swamp” and champion law and order. It may, though, serve as a reminder of Trumpian chaos, and deter those in the messy, less-engaged middle. My impulse is to say that this conviction won’t move the needle with many voters and may in fact reinforce the sense of victimhood among Trump’s base – and leave them even more aggrieved. But the truth is, no one knows; this is a truly unprecedented series of events.  

Potential electoral impact aside, this moment is a relief for Americans who believe that, while our justice system is often imperfect, it is at its best when holding even the most powerful to the same standards as anyone else. Despite what Trump’s own team has argued, former presidents should not be immune from the rule of law. The prosecution put on a strong case, and a jury found that they demonstrated Trump’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. His status as a former president seeking to be a future one was not a get-out-of-jail-free card. This is precisely as it should be in a functional democratic state.  

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But that doesn’t make this a moment to cheer. Whatever one thinks of Trump as a person or his guilt or innocence – and to be clear, I think he’s a terrible person who is very obviously guilty of the crimes of which he was just convicted – it is in no nation’s best interests to have leaders who are criminals. It is a sign of continued functionality when leaders who do commit crimes are tried, convicted and punished, but it’s also a sign of serious decline when bad actors are put into power in the first place – especially when one of two major parties seeks to put them back in office even after their crimes have been revealed.  

This conviction is a reminder of just how thoroughly Trump has degraded America, and – four years after he left office and tried to reinstall himself as leader on his way out – how degraded and broken the country remains. This is made worse still by the fact that Trump’s most loyal supporters are convinced that this trial, and the other three that the former president faces, are political farces, examples of a powerful Deep State trying to take down a heroic man. How does a country normalise when a large chunk of it believes a convicted criminal is the good guy, and the real problem is that the long-cherished judicial and democratic systems have told him he must play by the rules?  

It seems unlikely that Trump will actually go to jail before the November presidential election. Even if he is sentenced to time behind bars, he will no doubt appeal. It’s difficult to imagine that a judge will order the imprisonment of a presidential candidate just days before the Republican National Convention and four months before voters go to the polls. Crazier things, of course, have happened – like a former president being convicted of 34 felonies and running for office again. Perhaps he will indeed be campaigning from a jail cell. But even if Donald Trump remains a free man through the election, he will carry with him a new title: the first former president to be a convicted felon.  

[See also: The chaos and confusion of Trump on trial]

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