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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump verdict hardens many views, but changes some, too

Former President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at Trump Tower in New York, Friday, May 31, 2024. Trump, the first U.S. president to become a felon, excoriated prosecutors, the judge in his case, and President Biden in remarks to reporters and a small crowd of vetted supporters at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Jonothan Weisman, Kellen Browning and Maya King

As the nation’s electorate processed the felony convictions of Donald Trump, the partisan divide in the verdict’s wake did not look so much like opposing sides of a chasm but like two alternate universes, one where the former president had been hounded and persecuted by his corrupt political enemies, the other where justice had finally been served to a career criminal.

Where the two sides were even within shouting distance of each other was vanishingly small, if it existed at all. But a few voices in the Trump universe allowed that Trump may well have done something wrong, and a few in the anti-Trump sphere said they had finally been convinced to vote for his opponent, President Joe Biden.

Dozens of interviews with voters in the swing states of Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as Iowa, found not a single supporter of Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, who had been pulled from his side by his conviction on 34 felony counts of fabricating business records to hide hush-money payments to a porn actor on the eve of the 2016 election. Prosecutors had framed their case in the loftiest of terms, election interference — an all-out effort to thwart the exposure of a sex scandal that may well have changed the course of history.

That was not how Trump’s supporters saw it.

“I think that this was all a setup and rigged just like the election,” said Marty Lee, 77, of Scottsdale, Arizona, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “We the People Are Pissed Off.” The trial was “a kangaroo court,” he added. (False claims that the 2020 election was rigged, pushed by Trump and his allies, have been repeatedly debunked, and there is no basis for the suggestion that the Manhattan case or the verdict rendered unanimously by a jury of 12 was rigged.)

Even Democrats were skeptical that the convictions would make a difference.

“I’m cynical,” said Paula Doty, a 53-year-old teacher from Powers Lake, Wisconsin, who applauded the verdict, “because I don’t think it’s going to matter.”

But on the margins, with the remaining undecided voters, having a felon as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer could make the decision to pick Trump harder — maybe a lot harder.

Oscar Cisneros, 50, who described himself as an independent voter, said that while he supported Biden in 2020, he had been put off more recently by the president’s age and apparent slip-ups, and that he was undecided about whom to vote for in the fall. But now, he said, Trump had added to his baggage.

“It gives you a different point of view: How can you be a president if you’re being found guilty of hush money?” asked Cisneros, who works for the city of Phoenix. “OK, dude, you’re guilty. I don’t know if I want you up there.”

The conviction could only help shore up Biden’s left flank, which had been wavering amid criticism over his handling of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, launched after the deadly Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, and other progressive priorities.

Camille Williams, 31, and Alison Thurston, 33, friends in Philadelphia, both freely admitted that they were not big fans of Biden, but Trump’s conviction had, for them, underscored just how unfit the former president was to return to the White House.

“I do feel like it shows that it is important for us to vote, the fact that our other option is a felon,” Thurston said, adding that if Trump’s federal indictment in a separate criminal case — in connection with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election — was brought to trial, it “would push me even more.”

With many Americans already divided into partisan camps, persuadable voters seem harder to find. If anything, the convictions appeared likely to harden people further along party lines, at least in the short run.

“There are businessmen in New York who cheat everyday,” said Sue Kay, a Republican who lives in Apex, North Carolina, alluding to the sexual liaison that prosecutors said Trump had with porn actor Stormy Daniels. “But that’s none of my business. That has nothing to do with you being in the presidency.”

Kay, who is in her 50s, said that her vote for Trump was locked in before the trial and that it was even more solidified now.

But undecided voters are out there. In New York Times/Siena College battleground polls in October, about 7% of Trump’s supporters said they would vote for Biden if Trump were found guilty in an unspecified criminal trial.

More recently, a Marquette Law School poll taken during the hush-money trial found that a modest lead for Trump among registered voters nationwide became a 4-point lead for Biden if Trump were found guilty.

Those questions were asked when a conviction remained a hypothetical, and voters might react differently now that it is a reality. But either way, voters must come to terms with the choice between an unpopular incumbent and the country’s first former president to be convicted of a crime. And it is still early, with more legal shoes to drop for Trump.

The sticking power of Trump’s appeal, for now, is once again showing its resilience. Cynthia Ryder, a Republican and retired registered nurse from Racine, said Friday that she was quite certain the guilty verdict rendered against the former president was a “disgrace.”

The judge was chosen for his partisanship, she insisted; the district attorney had promised to “get” Trump; and the jury instructions were stacked for a conviction. (There is no evidence for these accusations, which echo criticisms put forth by Trump and other Republicans.)

And the paying of hush money to a porn actor on the eve of the 2016 election? “That’s not a crime,” Ryder, a cheerful 76-year-old, said under a cool, sunny sky, with Lake Michigan behind her. “There are payoffs all the time.”

But when she considered actually voting for a convicted criminal for president, Ryder hesitated for a moment. She wondered out loud whether she could. Then she reached her conclusion.

“I cannot vote for Joe Biden, but if he is the other choice, I would” vote for Trump, she said.

Others seemed like they could, just maybe, go the other way — or perhaps simply not vote. A number of young Trump supporters who were interviewed scoffed at the conviction, calling the entire trial a charade. They then admitted that they probably would not vote in November.

Black voters, especially Black men, have slipped away from Biden over the last four years, but 27% of Black voters who backed Trump told pollsters from The New York Times and Siena College before the verdict that a conviction would flip them to Biden, compared with just 5% of white respondents who said that.

Daryl Jones, 49, who is Black, made it clear that he remained a fan of Trump’s as he cut hair at the busy Universal Barber Shop in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday evening. Yet when it came to the former president’s convictions, Jones was resolute.

“Well, you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time,” he said. “So at the same time, if he’s wrong, he’s wrong. And he was wrong.”

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