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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For Trump, a verdict that’s harder to spin

Former president and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H. on April 27, 2023. Trump was ordered to pay $5 million in damages to E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of rape and defamation. A jury found him liable of sexual abuse, but not rape.

By Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan

When Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg secured the indictment of former President Donald Trump, it galvanized Trump supporters. Allies of his Republican rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, mark that indictment as the moment Trump sped away from his nearest opponent in the polls.

Nobody around Trump is making a prediction publicly or privately that there will be a similar effect after a jury on Tuesday in the lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation.

The price Trump was ordered by the jury to pay his accuser, Carroll, was $5 million, in a verdict he has promised to appeal. But whether he pays any political price at all is unclear. Trump was said to be furious about the verdict, and questioning the various decisions that were made by his team in the defense. Far from letting up on Carroll, his team plans to aggressively attack her claims and tether her to Democrats.

There is no world in which the result of that civil trial was a positive development for the project he is most focused on: the presidential campaign for which he remains the Republican front-runner.

Trump has a decadeslong history of crude and misogynistic comments — and he has faced repeated accusations of sexual harassment and assault, so many that they most likely would have sunk any other candidate. But a majority in the Republican Party have largely dismissed the accusations against a celebrity former president as irrelevant to how they cast votes.

But comments and even allegations are different from a jury verdict.

The first real test of his in-person response will come Wednesday night on a national stage in front of a live television audience — a town hall hosted by CNN in New Hampshire, in a venue filled with about 400 voters who are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents.

“Americans heard with their own ears in 2016 Trump brag on tape about sexual assault and still elected him,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, referring to the “Access Hollywood” tape. “Will this be different, or will his supporters simply dismiss it as one more example of the politically motivated ‘deep state’ beat-down of which he claims to be the victim?”

A handful of allies of DeSantis, Trump’s closest rival in the Republican primary race, anticipated that this case could prove different from myriad other scandals Trump has faced.

Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and John Thune of South Dakota essentially averted their gazes when asked to comment by reporters. Among those who publicly defended him was Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

“It makes me want to vote for him twice,” Tuberville told HuffPost. “People are going to see through the lines,” he added, saying that with “a New York jury, he had no chance.”

Few of Trump’s opponents were willing to condemn him either, at least so far. Only one Republican candidate, Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, issued a statement.

“Over the course of my over 25 years of experience in the courtroom, I have seen firsthand how a cavalier and arrogant contempt for the rule of law can backfire,” the statement read. “The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence told NBC News that it was up to the American public to decide whether Trump is fit to be president again, but added, “I just don’t think it’s where the American people are focused.”

For years, Trump’s approach to his business and his political life has been to portray himself as inevitable, to give off the impression that challengers or critics shouldn’t even bother trying to best him. He has handled the 2024 Republican primary in much the same manner, encouraged by his polling lead and DeSantis’ stumbles. Still, some of his critics and even some allies concede that the various legal challenges could risk becoming too much freight for him to carry.

Trump’s advisers have recently conducted extensive polling to explore how deeply the various legal cases are resonating with primary voters, according to people briefed on the efforts.

Some of Trump’s advisers were nervously anticipating the verdict before deliberations began. One was candid in private that while they were relieved Trump had been found not liable of the specific claim of rape, the rest of the jury’s verdict was “not good.”

For Trump and his allies, describing him as the victim of a “deep state” plot by his government opponents and prosecutors could be much harder to accomplish in this case. A federal jury of six men and three women gave legitimacy to an accusation of sexual abuse made by Carroll, a writer who was photographed with Trump in New York yet whom he continues to maintain he does not know.

One of the most damaging aspects of the trial for Trump was his videotaped deposition. People close to him acknowledge the comments were a self-inflicted wound, and are aware Democrats in particular may put them in television ads where independent and suburban voters whom Trump long ago alienated would see them.

In his deposition, he burrowed into his remarks on the “Access Hollywood” tape, when asked by Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, if it was true as he said on that recording that stars can grab women by the genitals.

“Well, if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true,” Trump said. “Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately, or fortunately.”

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