Dead end for Donald Trump?


Many believe a criminal conviction will either throw Trump out of the presidential race or discredit him enough to ensure his defeat, writes Ashis Ray

Narendra Modi did his best to ingratiate himself with Trump. He hugged the besieged former US president like his life depended on it. He campaigned for his re-election, in a way most unbecoming of another head of government. He laid out a red carpet for him in India for the benefit of audiences in the US.

That object of adoration has today dubiously become the first American president, current or erstwhile, to be accused in a criminal trial. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party nominee for the US presidency contest in November, is charged with concealing information regarding the payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, to safeguard his bid for the White House in 2016.

The money was allegedly paid to Trump’s then lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to the offence in 2018. He is expected to be one of the prosecution’s explosive witnesses. There are 34 charges of felony against Trump. He is indicted of falsifying his company’s accounts to show the payments to Cohen as legal expenses.

Under US law, it is not illegal to have extramarital sex or pay hush money to conceal this. (Trump has denied having a sexual rendezvous with Daniels.) It is, though, a crime not to disclose the outgoings according to their actual purpose.

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas

More seriously, such an offence violates the election laws in America. In addition to the proceedings underway in New York City, the former head of State and government in the US is confronted by federal allegations of inciting an insurrection on 6 January 2021 to unconstitutionally hang on to office, of purloining and then concealing classified documents in his Florida home after leaving the White House and of attempting to subvert the 2020 election result in Georgia state.

If the statements and depositions in the first few days are any indication of the shape of things to come— in what is expected to be a six-week trial—the gloves are off. The first prosecution witness was a grey-haired, moustachioed David Pecker, previously publisher of American Media Inc., which brought out the National Enquirer, on the basis that he collaborated to protect Trump from adverse publicity of his salacious past during his 2016 presidential campaign.

The alleged arrangement was that he would inform Trump and Cohen if he detected any harmful stories. As a result, he acquired rights to Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story that Trump had sex with her, but suppressed its publication until after the 2016 election.

He operated what has been described as a ‘catch-and-kill’ scheme. In other words, he acquired stories, but either buried them or kept them in cold storage. “We used chequebook journalism,” Pecker told the court, “and we paid for stories.”

CNN reported: ‘Trump sat motionless as he looked at his one-time ally divulge details about the scheme that has put him in serious legal jeopardy.’ Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked Pecker how Trump reacted when told he would run negative stories about Bill and Hilary Clinton (his 2016 Democratic party opponent). “He was pleased,” Pecker replied.

There was no written contract between the two. “It was just an agreement among friends,” the publisher said. And it was ‘confidential’. Pecker narrated that in August 2015, Cohen called to say “the boss (Trump) wanted to see me”.

He deposed: “At that meeting, Donald [Trump] and Michael [Cohen] asked me what can I do and what my magazines could do to help the campaign. “So, thinking about it, as I did previously, I said what I would do is I would run or publish positive stories about Mr Trump and I would publish negative stories about his opponents (in the primaries) and I said that I would also be the eyes and ears because I know that the Trump organisation had a very small staff.”

This was, as prosecutor Matthew Colangelo put it, “a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures—to silence people with something bad to say about his behaviour”.

Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche countered: “There’s nothing wrong in trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.” While Trump was tied down in court, visibly jolted by the chastening experience, his opponent in November’s presidential contest— incumbent president Joe Biden—hit the campaign trail in Pennsylvania and Florida, states he respectively won narrowly and lost four years ago.

This was accompanied by a ballistic advertising campaign, which he can afford, given the war chest at his disposal. On the other hand, Trump is struggling to raise funds, not to mention haemorrhaging expenses in lost civil suits and legal costs.

The upshot is that Biden is reported to have neutralised the lead that opinion surveys had hitherto given Trump in the decisive swing states. Trump has milked his court appearances in the past year to his benefit, however.

A sizeable section of Americans believes he is being unjustifiably hounded for political gains, rather than the law simply taking its course. However, before the trial unfolded, a New York Times– Sienna poll found that a majority of voters thought the allegations against him were somewhat serious. In a Reuters–Ipsos survey, 13 per cent of potential Trump voters said they would not vote for him if he was convicted of a felony.

A sampling by Harvard Youth indicated that if Trump is declared guilty on any of the four criminal trials, Biden’s lead would increase. Conviction for felony, even if it leads to a jail sentence, would not debar Trump from standing for president. But if found guilty in the federal indictments, he would be disqualified from running for any office.

The US judicial system is inordinately dilatory in arriving at a trial. Yet, once it reaches this stage, it has the ability to move in a fairly business- like manner. While he is stuck in court, Trump is unable to campaign or raise money for his bid.

If the hearing concludes within a reasonable period, the sword of Damocles will hang over his head even if he appeals against a conviction. It is widely speculated that besides Cohen, Daniels herself and perhaps McDougal will testify.

The trial, though, is not being televised. Instead, there’s live coverage from outside the courthouse, providing interested people a daily blow-by-blow account of the drama within, juxtaposed with commentary from pundits and spokespersons. It is a thriller for non-partisans; but arguably tense and agonising for the committed.

A delayed judgement against him in this matter—given the ponderous scheduling procedure in America — could mean he may not face a trial in the most threatening cases against him before the presidential election in November.

In 2002, Trump’s Republican predecessor at the White House, George Bush, labelled Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil”. But in a world currently plagued by destabilising figures like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Benjamin Netanyahu—not to mention India’s own Modi—the return of a Trump to power is a worrying thought.

It’s not ideal to stop him with a criminal conviction that eliminates him from running for office or discredits him sufficiently to be defeated. But the right-thinking US citizens and the international community can hardly object.

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