Inside Trump’s Strategy to Turn Legal Woes Into a Political Advantage

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Donald Trump is at once in an unprecedented and familiar position. On Tuesday, a federal jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation in a civil lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll. Such a conviction is a first for a former president, let alone the presidential frontrunner of one of the major political parties. For virtually anyone else, it would mark a fatal blow to their White House ambitions. But within the cloisters and balustrade of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s inner circle is preparing for the news to come and go like every other Trump scandal, sources familiar with the matter tell TIME, as the campaign plots to turn his mounting legal woes into an advantage ahead of the Republican primary.

“Obviously, getting accused in a civil case of sexual abuse is not good for anyone on a personal level, but where have you been the last seven years?” says a source close to Trump. “If you can’t understand that it probably doesn’t matter politically, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve known about this case. We’ve known about his past actions with women. It’s not a new revelation that Donald Trump may or may not have been potentially sketchy with women in the 80s and 90s.”

News of the unanimous guilty verdict drew cheers from Democrats and other Trump detractors, who relish seeing the man who has dodged investigations for 50 years face retribution. Yet Trump conveyed unbridled confidence on CNN Wednesday night that the ruling wouldn’t hurt his candidacy, boasting of his recent surge in the polls and mocking Carroll’s allegations that he raped her. “I have no idea who the hell she is,” he said, as the crowd laughed and applauded. “She’s a whack job.”

It was a sign of how Trump World expects him to tackle the Carroll verdict and other legal challenges in the coming months. Many of those closest to him will point to the long line of outrages and allegations—from the Access Hollywood tape to the myriad misconduct accusations against him to the alleged Stormy Daniels affair—as evidence that Trump’s sordid history has never been a decisive factor with the voters he needs most to win. “I don’t think that the E. Jean Carroll verdict is going to have any sort of impact,” Alex Bruesewitz, a GOP consultant and CEO of the Trump-allied firm X Strategies, tells TIME. “Everyone on the left already accuses him of being a rapist. It’s not going to be a new attack.”

It’s a reality that even some of Trump’s fiercest critics recognize. “We hear a lot of voters say things like, ‘Well, I don’t like his tweeting, or his mouth, or his morals. But I think he was a good president. I liked his policies. I think he’s good for the economy, or I take him over Joe Biden and the Democrats,’” Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump pollster and former GOP strategist who founded the Republican Accountability Project, tells TIME.

And yet the Carroll verdict—for which Trump was ordered to pay $5 million in damages—does not exist in a vacuum. It comes after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted Trump last month for allegedly falsifying business records connected to hush-money payments. And it may be a prelude to more charges. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis appears poised to prosecute Trump for his efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election win there. Meanwhile, Special Counsel Jack Smith is also investigating the former president’s handling of classified documents and role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“The campaign plans to respond by vigorously pushing back on these witch hunts,” Trump’s campaign spokesman Steven Cheung tells TIME.

While the conventional wisdom suggests that a presidential candidate facing criminal charges and having been found liable for sexual battery would be anathema to the moderate voters who decide general elections, Trump’s cascade of legal troubles is creating a dynamic that both his allies and his adversaries recognize as helping to corral Republican voters to his defense. It’s also boxing in GOP challengers who represent the wing of the Republican Party that would like to move on from Trump.

“He’s set up a construct where he’s being unfairly persecuted to try to stop him from running,” David Axelrod, who was chief strategist for former President Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, tells TIME. “So if you’re a Republican candidate, and you try to make the case that he can’t win because of all of this, you’re essentially embracing the alleged conspiracy Trump is promoting that all of this is meant to stop him from running.”

Most notably, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who many consider to be Trump’s most formidable potential Republican primary opponent, has been falling precipitously in the polls since the Bragg indictment. While DeSantis has not yet entered the race—he’s expected to launch his campaign in the coming weeks—he has thus far been careful not to directly attack Trump over his legal predicament.

“He can try, but you’re going to be competing for the Asa Hutchinson lane, which, last I checked, is about 1%,” says Garrett Ventry, a GOP consultant and Trump ally, referring to the former Arkansas governor running for president. “Attacking him is a very high-risk situation that has never really paid dividends since 2015. Name a Republican candidate who’s successfully attacked Donald Trump that it worked for.”

Hutchinson is one of the few elected Republicans to castigate Trump after the Carroll ruling. Other prominent GOP officials, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, rushed to his defense. Former Vice President Mike Pence told NBC News on Tuesday night that he didn’t think voters would care. The wildcard remains DeSantis, who has so far stayed quiet since the Tuesday decision.

In the weeks since his arraignment in the Stormy Daniels case—the first indictment of a former President—Trump has climbed in 2024 polling of GOP voters. He’s also secured a slew of high-profile endorsements, including from most Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who heads the party’s Senate campaign arm. Even more damaging to DeSantis’s argument, Trump allies say, is that some polls show Trump doing better against Biden in a head-to-head match up than the Florida governor—crippling his pitch that he’s more electable in a general election.

Read more: RNC Considers New Criteria for First Presidential Primary Debate

Another component is that many Republicans simply don’t buy the notion that Trump can’t win in 2024. “This is where Republicans screwed themselves,” Longwell says. “They all let Trump get away with saying that the 2020 election was stolen. And now voters don’t think he lost and so they try to make an electability argument, and people are like, ‘Well, he won in 2016 when you said he couldn’t and he won in 2020.’”

For those reasons, the Trump campaign and his strongest supporters—even those who will privately acknowledge the reputational wound of a guilty verdict—believe he can simply ride out the Carroll ruling. Several pointed to Trump winning a plurality of white women in 2016, even after the Access Hollywood tape came out, and him improving with women overall in 2020 compared to four years earlier, even after the Carroll allegation first surfaced. In March, a Fox News poll had him winning 40% of GOP women voters compared to 23% for DeSantis. “The American people knew they were not canonizing St. Donald of Manhattan in 2016,” says Mike Davis, founder of the conservative Article III Project and a close Trump ally.

Of course, that’s not a winning formula for most politicians. But Trump is not like most politicians. With a season of legal challenges ahead, his campaign is betting that his singular ability to make success out of scandal will propel him to the Republican nomination. They are not the only ones who suspect that might work.

“Donald Trump is a sui generis in politics,” Axelrod says. “Whatever his shortcomings, he does have a feral genius for swimming in shark-infested waters and surviving.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at