Will the hush money case save or sink Trump?

The former president thinks it could get him more votes


Donald Trump is all set to become the first former president of the United States to be criminally prosecuted. On March 25, acting New York supreme court judge Juan Manuel Merchan denied Trump's legal team's efforts to further delay the proceedings in the hush money case. Trump's lawyers asked for more time, arguing that they needed to go through nearly two hundred thousand pages of fresh evidence, which they said were released late by Manhattan district attorney Alvin L. Bragg. The fresh evidence in question is from the 2018 federal prosecution of Trump's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. The prosecution pointed out that only a small portion of the new evidence—around 300 pages—were relevant to Trump's case.

The trial was initially scheduled to start on March 25, but after the new documents were released, Merchan permitted to postpone it till mid April. But he said no further delay would be permitted. “You are accusing the Manhattan D.A.'s office and the people assigned to this case of prosecutorial misconduct and trying to make me complicit in it and you don't have a single cite to support that position. The defendant has been given a reasonable amount of time,” the judge told Trump’s legal team. He has given them time till April 15 to review the fresh documents. And formal trial proceedings, beginning with jury selection, is expected to start on that date, barring some unexpected hiccups, which are not so uncommon in cases involving Trump.

The hush money case involves charges of Trump falsifying business documents to cover up the payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels to stop her from going public about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump during the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign. The prosecution has charged him with 34 counts of falsifying records to hide payments made on Trump's behalf by Cohen, who is likely to be the star prosecution witness. He has pleaded “not guilty” to all 34 counts and has questioned Cohen’s credibility.

This is not the first time that Trump and Merchan are crossing paths. In 2022, it was Merchan who presided over the tax fraud trial against Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organisation. It resulted in Weisselberg's conviction and Merchan sentenced him to five months in jail and five years of probation. Merchan is overseeing a case involving Steve Bannon, former adviser to Trump, on charges that he misappropriated funds after a fundraiser to build a wall along the southern border of the United States, one of Trump's dream projects.

Trump, true to form, alleged that the trial was a “witch hunt” and said he that would appeal the order to start the trial in April. “This case should have been brought three and a half years ago. They decided to [bring it] now during the election, so that I won't be able to campaign,” said Trump. He also said that he would testify during the trial. The Trump legal team is trying to delay the trial further. Todd Blanche, Trump's lead attorney in the case, has already filed a motion to postpone the trial, blaming “pretrial publicity”. They were referring to a recent documentary about Daniels and the hush money payment, arguing that it would have already prejudiced the jury pool. The Manhattan D.A.'s office, meanwhile, said the pretrial publicity was “caused and exacerbated” by Trump himself.

Judge Merchan does not seem to be impressed by the motion to delay, and imposed a gag order on Trump. The former president has been ordered not to attack jury members, prosecutors and witnesses, following a request from D.A.'s office. Merchan referred to Trump's previous outbursts on the case. “His statements were threatening, inflammatory, denigrating,” observed the judge. He may, however, find it difficult to enforce the gag order, because, in normal circumstances, offenders are not sent to jail, but may be let off with a fine.

Most legal experts suggested that the trial would get over quickly as it was a straightforward case. But they warned that the jury selection might take some time because most potential jurors would already have very strong opinion about Trump—either favourable or negative. Trump may also mount a lengthy defence, argue his case of witch hunt and could use the case for more publicity. Still, the trial is unlikely to last beyond six to eight weeks.

If convicted, Trump might face a jail sentence of up to four years. But he is unlikely to spend any time behind bars, as New York law permits lenient sentencing for first-time offenders, depending on the circumstances of the crime and the defendant’s history and character. So, Trump might get away with a fine.

Yet, it could turn him into a convicted felon, affecting his ability to travel freely and to interact with the people he wants, especially during the peak of the campaign season. Moreover, once convicted, he would not be able to pardon himself, even if he wins the elections, because it is not a federal case.

Trump will have to reschedule his campaign events on the days of the trial, which is likely to take place four days a week, with Wednesdays likely being off days. He is expected to stay at the Trump Tower in New York during the trial days and his campaign team plans to arrange radio and television interviews from there. On weekends, he is likely to hold campaign events in crucial nearby states, like Pennsylvania. Wednesdays are likely to be spent raising funds.

Trump, meanwhile, appears confident about the trial not affecting his electoral prospects, although there is a clear possibility that a conviction could alienate moderate Republicans and independents. After the trial date was set, Trump told reporters outside the Manhattan courtroom that the trial could make him more popular. The trial and even a conviction will certainly further energise his base, which will be totally convinced that it is all part of a plan engineered by President Joe Biden to retain the White House by any means possible. In fact, Trump's ailing presidential campaign was put back on track last year after the Manhattan grand jury indictment in the hush money case. It sucked all the oxygen out of his Republican rivals’ primary campaigns and put Trump on track to secure his party’s nomination.

As the case moves forward, the Trump team is working overtime to paint Biden as someone attempting to imprison his political opponents and blames the Democrats for “weaponising the legal system” against Trump. It has once again united the Republican Party and even its establishment wing led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once wanted to impeach and be done with Trump. All the senior leaders of the party have since then coalesced behind Trump. Republican strategists believe it to be a good opportunity to beef up fundraising as Trump is woefully short of campaign money compared with Biden.

Finally, the number of voters who think that Trump committed serious crimes has been going down since December, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times. Voters from across the political divide, including even Democrats and independents, are now less likely to say that the former president acted criminally. No wonder, Trump thinks that he can use the trial to his advantage and enlarge his lead over Biden.