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Trump’s sentence may do more harm than good

I think it’s fair to say that for a lot of people, myself included, the image of Donald Trump in an orange jumpsuit and chains waddling into prison for his crimes is quite gratifying. And with the recent guilty verdict in the New York case against Trump, alongside the other cases against him stalling out, people have come to celebrate this case as the best chance to reach the image described above. While I share the same visceral desire to see Trump punished for all he’s done, on a practical level, it’s important to take a step back while we wait for the sentencing of this case to look at both the legal and political implications.

Let’s start with the outcome described above: Trump is sentenced to prison, home confinement, or strict probation. At first glance, this outcome seems enormously beneficial in the election. He would not be able to campaign properly, and a New York Times/Sienna poll from 2023 showed that many independent and Republican voters would potentially change their minds about him if he were to be convicted. However, this view is likely oversimplified. 

In order to understand why this outcome is not as simple as one might think, the full nature of the charges against Trump and the case as a whole must be understood. Trump was found guilty of falsifying business records. This offence is almost always a misdemeanour, which results in only a monetary fine unless it can be connected to another crime, and even then, a prison sentence is far from guaranteed. Mr Bragg (the prosecutor on the case) argued that the falsified business records were used to interfere with the 2016 election. This was an unusual approach that raised a host of technical legal issues, and many believe it was only tried in this way because of Trump’s reputation and the media attention surrounding this case. 

As a result, a serious sentence against Trump would likely only reinforce the argument that this trial was a witch hunt and could lead moderate conservatives to flock to his defence. Trump would be able to better argue he is being persecuted, as it is highly unusual to be imprisoned over falsifying business records, especially in the circumstances of this case. This would be an even more pressing criticism considering that the sentence against him would come at a time when he is gaining in the polls nationwide and New York is a heavily progressive state. Moreover, while the 2023 poll discussed above indicates he might lose support, a recent poll specifically about the trial indicated that most voters will not have their minds changed by the verdict in this case, and nothing in that poll suggests that a more serious sentence would change that sentiment. 

It seems unlikely for the reasons discussed above that the guilty verdict against Trump will result in any significant sentence beyond a fine and potential probation, and even if it did the sentence would likely not take effect before the election. With that in mind, the question then becomes, what are the other outcomes?

The Trump team has already said they plan to appeal the verdict. While the case itself was overall legally sound there are several technical issues which an appeals court may take issue with. If an appeal were to succeed, this would be disastrous both politically and legally for the Democrats. This would prove to many people that Trump was unfairly targeted, granting him even stronger support. Additionally, the other cases against him (such as the Georgia case or the federal document mishandling case) would be heavily scrutinised and painted with the same brush as the New York trial – as unfair witch hunts – even though these other cases rest on much stronger legal bases. If the general public sees these other cases in the same light as the New York case, it could seriously undermine the chance that Trump will ever be appropriately punished and even increase the chance he is re-elected. 

Arguably, the most likely outcome is that Trump’s sentence will be nothing more than a fine and probation. This is the only sentence which has consistent precedent in similar cases across jurisdictions. This outcome seems like very little would change. It would be minor enough for Trump to brush off politically and would not change many people’s minds (as seen in the poll discussed above). If this truly is the most likely outcome, what was this all for?

The poll I discussed earlier indicated that there is some small group of voters (6% or less) who may be less likely to vote for Trump based on his guilty verdict. In the swing states where the election may be as close as one per cent, that could be huge. However, this verdict also has a high likelihood of firing up Trump’s base and even more moderate conservatives who view the case as a witch hunt. People with that view may now be more likely to show up on election day than they otherwise would have to “help defend Trump” from the “unfair persecution.” That effect will likely be compounded if Trump’s sentence is as serious as many of us would viscerally want it to be.

The media circus that surrounds the current trial of Mr Trump wants to frame this as the “trial of the century,” but it’s simply not. Maybe the other cases could have been, such as the Georgia case against him, but this is a relatively small charge, usually resulting in a slap on the wrist. If we truly want to have the best chance at avoiding a second Trump term and maintaining a functional rule of law, it would be prudent to stop focusing on the New York case and instead focus on actual political issues, or even the other cases against the former president.

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