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Trump will go from the trial to the trail and back again

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump will make his most concentrated effort yet to turn his criminal trial into a political asset in the next two days, heading from the courtroom to the campaign trail and back again.

The former president’s hush money trial resumes in New York on Tuesday as prosecutors seek to prove that Trump falsified business records to cover up an alleged affair and thereby interfered in the 2016 election by misleading voters. They’ve been unwilling to reveal witnesses in advance in order to shield them from Trump’s attacks. But they are expected to press on with questioning a former banker for Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer who made hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who alleged the affair that Trump denies. Trump has pleaded not guilty in the case.

With court dark on Wednesday, the presumptive GOP nominee will fly to the epicenter of his clash with President Joe Biden, making stops in two swing states, Wisconsin and Michigan, that could decide the destiny of the White House. The trip will show how useful it is for an indicted candidate to have his own plane. But more significantly, this will be Trump’s most intense campaign travel in weeks, and he is sure to dig in on his false claims that his four indictments were directly instigated by the White House.

Trump’s return to full-time campaigning will be fleeting, however. He must be back in court Thursday — when Judge Juan Merchan will hold another hearing over prosecution claims he’s regularly violating a partial gag order meant to protect witnesses, court staff and even the judge’s own family.

The juxtaposition between campaigning — where Trump will revert to his domineering political persona — and his mute disempowerment in the courtroom, where the judge is in charge, will be another remarkable moment in a presidential election campaign like no other. It will emphasize how the 2024 White House race is so far being shaped as much by what happens in court as in traditional campaigning. And it will underscore how Trump has made his defense in multiple criminal cases the same as his central campaign theme — that he’s effectively a political dissident who is the victim of unwarranted persecution.

The presumptive GOP nominee tells his supporters that he’s being targeted because he’s preventing the same thing from happening to them. “I am your justice and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.

Damaging testimony

The opening week of the prosecution case contained detailed testimony that appeared to be damaging to Trump as former tabloid publisher David Pecker detailed “catch and kill” schemes that the ex-president allegedly used to suppress negative stories and attorneys teased out evidence about alleged financial irregularities.

“It was election fraud. Pure and simple,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in his opening statement. Trump’s counsel Todd Blanche countered: “I have a spoiler alert. There is nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.”

The ex-president is playing to a jury made up to tens of millions of voters. It is too early to tell how the electorate might respond to a conviction in the case or whether Trump could get a political boost if he is acquitted. The lesson of the Trump era, however, is that the ex-president’s supporters often see attempts to call him to legal account as an example of unfair victimization.

CNN polling released last week suggests that there is no dominant public view on the trial, but that does not preclude the possibility that a guilty verdict could damage the former president. Only 44% of Americans expressed confidence that the jury will reach a fair verdict. Not surprisingly, a majority of Democrats feel that Trump is being treated more leniently than others, while a majority of Republicans think the opposite. One area of potential concern for Trump, however, is that 24% of his backers say a conviction might cause them to reconsider their support — although the overwhelming majority say they would not vote for Biden.

Taking up the battle against Biden in swing states

Trump’s appearances in Wisconsin and Michigan will give him a more traditional platform than the dingy courtroom corridor where he’s been delivering daily screeds against the case and spinning a dystopian vision of a nation on the verge of collapse. But there’s also a risk Trump’s loose tongue out on the trail could get him into trouble following his alleged violations of Merchan’s gag order.

The former president has been complaining that he’s been penned up in court and unable to effectively campaign. “I’m not in Georgia, or Florida or North Carolina, campaigning like I should be. This is about election interference,” he said earlier this month. But he spent the trial’s off day last Wednesday playing golf at his course in Bedminster, New Jersey, CNN reported. Still, the four-day-a-week court schedule does present its constraints. Trump, for example, has yet to reschedule a rally that had been due to take place on April 20 in North Carolina but was cancelled because of a dangerous storm.

In the meantime, Trump’s allies are pushing the persecution theme. “I think all these trials are political. I think it’s selective prosecution. I think what’s going on in New York is an outrage,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. This view ignores the fact that all of the indictments emerged from grand juries and according to established legal procedure and that some of Trump’s alleged crimes strike at the heart of America’s bedrock political system. But such rhetoric is convincing to Trump supporters and is repeated in a daily drumbeat on conservative media in order to disguise the nature of the charges.

Trump’s itinerary on Wednesday reflects the critical importance of two states that he won in 2016 but lost to Biden on his way out of the White House in 2020. Battleground polls published by CBS News on Sunday showed the rivals neck-and-neck in Wisconsin and Michigan. They were also tied in Pennsylvania, a third swing state Biden flipped from Trump four years ago. The president’s hopes of a second term probably rest on him winning at least two of the three states to get to 270 electoral votes. Biden has made multiple campaign stops while the ex-president has been stuck in New York.

The Trump campaign is billing the presumptive GOP nominee’s trip to Waukesha, Wisconsin, as a chance to highlight the “the peace, prosperity, and security of his first term with Joe Biden’s failed presidency.” That might seem like a hard case to make for a twice-impeached former president who attempted to crush US democracy to stay in office.

Yet, a new CNN poll released Sunday suggests that Trump’s message might be resonating with some voters at a time of high grocery prices, elevated interest rates and turmoil abroad. Some 55% of Americans now see the ex-president’s term as successful, while 61% think that Biden’s presidency is a failure, according to the poll. Biden’s ratings are especially poor on the economy, immigration and on his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza against Hamas, an issue that is especially important to voters under 35, a key sector of the Democratic coalition.

The former president and his allies are already seizing on the countrywide pro-Palestinian protests at college campuses to embroider their claims of a nation under siege from left-wing extremists on Biden’s watch. While the protests typically only include a minority of students at each campus and have not reached anywhere near the momentum of Vietnam War or civil rights-era demonstrations, television footage of police confronting students holding sit-ins contains emotive imagery that can be used selectively in the kind of demagogic campaign that Trump is running. Any sense of political unrest among voters could draw some of them toward his warnings that America needs tough, strongman leadership. The former president last week said that the current campus protests made the 2017 rally by White extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia – in which a woman died – look like a “peanut.” But the campus protests have been mostly peaceful — unlike the mob of Trump supporters that came to Washington and smashed its way into the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The campus demonstrations have split the Democratic Party down the middle – a divide House Speaker Mike Johnson sought to widen last week by traveling to Columbia University and calling for the National Guard to be deployed to break up demonstrations.

His decision to seize the issue underscored the way campaigns construct narratives that may not be completely true but that can be politically potent if they play into perceptions voters are already forming. Trump is following a similar playbook as he fuses his criminal defense as a supposed victim of partisan persecution with his political offensive for a White House comeback.

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