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Opinion: I was Bill Clinton’s press secretary. Here’s what Democrats need to say to defeat Trump

Opinion By Joe Lockhart, CNN

(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump held a pre-sentencing interview Monday with a probation officer after being convicted last month of falsifying business documents concerning hush money paid to conceal an alleged affair. In the aftermath of the trial, Democrats have struggled with delivering a consistent response to the verdict and taking advantage of moments like Monday’s probation interview.

President Joe Biden started to stake out the right response last week when he referred to his opponent as a “convicted felon” — but didn’t mention Stormy Daniels, the porn star who alleged the affair (which Trump denies), and the hush money payout to “catch and kill” the story so it wasn’t made public during the 2016 campaign.

We need to move on from these details because the public isn’t convinced these facts, no matter how sordid, disqualify him from office. It’s not the crime that’s powerful in this case, it’s the punishment, as we’re observing with Trump having to meet (albeit virtually) with a probation officer Monday.

In other words, it’s not about Stormy Daniels or payoffs; instead, the conviction should be the centerpiece of a campaign arguing that Trump is unfit, not because of infidelity or shady business practices, but because he is a convicted criminal. Though some Americans don’t see this case as being as serious as the others pending against him, it’s one in which he was still found guilty. We need to go big here, and the conviction is a small piece in a sordid life of a man who has no business leading our country or the free world.

With all due respect to my old boss and the best political mind of a generation, Bill Clinton, I disagreed with his contention that successful campaigns are ones that focus on the future. I believe in this case we must use the conviction of the former president as a launching pad to remind voters of everything Trump’s done both before he took office and while he was president.

There is a very strong case against Trump based on what his second term will look like. There have been reports that Trump has fundamental changes in our government in store, such as gutting the civil service in favor of political operatives loyal to Trump. There have also been reports that some seeking employment at the Republican National Committee were asked to state whether they thought the 2020 campaign results were illegitimate.

But a much richer vein for Democrats is going after the past. Many will argue voters have already factored in all of Trump’s malfeasance in their current level of support and repeating it for them won’t have any impact. I couldn’t disagree more.

In 2016, voters rationalized a vote for Trump saying “It won’t be as bad as everyone thinks.” He’ll have smart people around him and there will be other safeguards. Today it’s just the opposite. Essentially: “It really wasn’t that bad, was it?”  Both are completely wrong. The Biden campaign must remove any and every justification that allows voters to “reluctantly” vote for Trump.

It’s not only voters who have forgotten or glossed over the carnage that was the Trump presidency. I recently talked with a group of seasoned political professionals about the impact of Gaza on the campaign. Several argued Biden would have trouble with Arab Americans, particularly in Michigan. I countered by asking how they could vote for the man who banned people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. I was dumbfounded when several people claimed Trump had never done that. (He did.)

Voters need a daily reminder of every aspect of Trump’s malfeasance. Trump as a convicted criminal validates the coming attacks as more than just partisan attacks using a “rigged system.” And it doesn’t stop with the New York conviction. The conviction actually gives new life and extra weight to the federal documents indictment and the election interference cases in Georgia and Arizona. While it’s all but certain neither will be adjudicated until after the election, and Trump denies wrongdoing in all the cases, the allegations carry much more weight this week than they did before the verdict.

In fact, everything Trump has been accused of in the past should carry extra weight now. Attacking Trump for not paying taxes and defrauding business partners, for example, are much more believable now that a jury of his peers has deemed him a criminal. All the things that just didn’t stick in 2016 are more likely to weigh him down in 2024.

The case must be made that the essence of Trump is a criminal and someone unfit to lead. In this country, being convicted of a crime carries a heavy stigma. That stigma politically can extend to Trump, making the litany of attacks on him more powerful. Trump has engaged in racism. Trump has cheated. Trump is xenophobic. Trump is a serial liar. Trump praises Russia and China, while calling American veterans – our heroes – losers. Trump has been impeached twice. Trump was found by a civil jury to have committed sexual assault.

The list goes on and on. These attacks should both energize the Democratic base and chip away at the reluctant swing Trump voter.

Trump can and should be criticized for what he is planning. But he’ll be defeated by what he’s already done. The Biden campaign is right that once voters focus on the choice of Biden or Trump, they will come around to voting for Biden, even if it’s with great reluctance.

Finally, here’s the kicker and what might be the most powerful argument. America is a proud country with an arrogance that is well earned on the battlefield, the halls of diplomacy and the leadership in economic and technological progress.

There is no better way to energize that pride than to paint Trump as a danger to everything that makes us exceptional. The message is America has been great and remains great, let’s not let Trump and his MAGA cap squander nearly 250 years of well-earned power and respect.

We are what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously called the “indispensable nation.” The world, whether they’ll admit it or not, depends on the United States to both forge alliances and deter opponents. Our democracy stands as a model copied around the world. This is not the country that can be led by a convicted criminal — that’s what happens in countries that don’t follow the rule of law. We are better than that.

That’s a message all Democrats can and should get behind.

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