Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

Trump’s legal challenges: Too little, too late

By NICHOLAS DAUM | April 12, 2024



Daum discusses the limitations of the court cases against Donald Trump.

91 felony counts.

$355 million in civil fraud.

Four indictments.

But what does it all matter?

Donald Trump’s legal woes have become something of a spectacle, with a new case or arraignment seemingly arriving every week. However, it seems that these felonies are having practically no impact on his presidential ambitions. In recent polls against incumbent President Joe Biden, Trump leads, and his approval ratings are also above the sitting president. This begs the question: Why do people not seem to care about Trump’s felonies, and which of his indictments, if any, may sway popular opinion?

First off, let’s examine Trump’s four indictments. Although he faces dozens of other counts of felonies, these cases are the most serious and most likely to return verdicts before the presidential election in November. The first case revolved around hush money payments to an adult film star in 2016 with a charge of falsifying business records in the first degree. The second is a classified document case, as Trump was charged with bringing about 100 documents to Mar-A-Lago, his residence in West Palm Beach, without declassifying them. Trump was charged with election interference in the third case, including conspiracy to obstruct official proceedings and defraud the United States. The fourth case similarly focuses on his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

Despite the severity of many of these cases, it is unlikely that verdicts will be decided before Election Day. The trial for the hush money case is set for April 15, while Trump’s lawyers continue to push for a delayed trial in the classified documents case. The other two still do not have trial dates. The 2024 election looms large over these cases: It is only seven months away, and the notoriously slow legal process is playing out at a snail’s pace. If Democrats hope that a federal indictment will stop Trump on his way back to the White House, they may be severely disappointed. 

As it stands, Trump is dominating the contests for the Republican nomination, and he is poised to win the nomination. Evidently, his criminal convictions have not tarnished his name in his own base, as he still amasses huge crowds for his rallies. Somewhat surprisingly, many Republicans do not even know about Trump’s indictments: In a recent poll, only around 40% of Republicans were aware of the four biggest legal issues that the ex-president faces. 

This can be attributed to several factors, including unwillingness to consume media that criticizes Trump and the omission of his legal issues from right-wing news outlets. Even Republicans that do know of his indictments are generally inclined to believe they are false, much like the mass denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election among Republicans.

Worse yet, results from the same study found that independents are not much better informed, while around 70% of Democrats know of Trump’s challenges. However, as Election Day nears, it is likely that Trump’s issues become more publicized. At that point, the true impact of these felonies may be revealed.

Republicans are unlikely to budge, but what do moderates think? Surely political centrists would care more about Trump’s legal issues and be more inclined to vote for Biden, right? Well, the responses are mixed. On the one hand, most Americans believe that conviction would be a fair outcome for the former president. However, when asked whether Trump’s legal issues or Biden’s age was a bigger problem for the fitness of the president, respondents were almost evenly divided. This indicates that even among the general population, Trump’s indictments are not as strong a liability as some would like. Biden’s age seems to be an equally big concern for many.

Overall, it seems that Trump’s legal challenges, while a nuisance for him, are not sinking his chances to win the election. Voters are either unaware of his felonies, deny their legitimacy or consider them on par with the issue of President Biden’s mental fitness. It is something of a paradox: Most Americans think Trump has undermined democracy, yet he is still leading in most presidential election polls. 

There does seem to be a silver lining, though. In one recent poll, while Trump leads Biden by 5% under normal circumstances, Biden is predicted to win by 2% if the former president is convicted of a felony. Clearly, Trump’s trials matter to some voters. Not all, mind you, but enough to sway the results of an especially close election. There is also a segment of the GOP that disapproves of Trump, and his conviction would do little to increase his appeal to these voters.

While Trump is leading in polls for now, there are still several months to go. His indictments have seemingly done little to hurt his campaign thus far, but they may be the straw that broke the camel’s back: If enough voters decide his legal troubles are a serious enough issue, they could sway the election to Biden, resulting in a repeat of 2020. But only time will tell. 

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