How Trump Prepared GOP Allies for a Guilty Verdict

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The Trump campaign was prepared. Minutes after a Manhattan jury convicted the former President on felony charges of falsifying business records, fundraising pitches inundated mailboxes; right-wing influencers stormed social media with aggrieved tirades; and Donald Trump emerged from the courtroom to delegitimize the verdict. “This was a disgrace,” he told reporters. “This was a rigged trial by a conflicted judge who was corrupt.”

That much was expected. But the onslaught of attacks against the ruling extended beyond the mass of MAGA loyalists. Many of Trump’s GOP critics assailed the trial rather than the first U.S. President to be found guilty of a crime. “The political underpinnings of this case blur the lines between the judicial system and the electoral system,” said Sen. Susan Collins. The prosecution was “politically motivated,” argued Sen. John Thune. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Trump World villain, was equally dismissive: “These charges should have never been brought in the first place.”

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It was a strikingly cohesive message from virtually all corners of the conservative firmament, even among those who don’t subscribe to the America First doctrine. This didn’t happen by accident. It was part of a deliberate strategy by Trump to impose the same talking points throughout the party: that Trump’s felony conviction was nothing more than a Democratic hit job. 

“Donald Trump has thoroughly taken over the Republican Party,” says Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP strategist, “the Republican Party is going to react in defense of Donald Trump on anything he says or does.”

While some in Trump's orbit held out hope for a hung jury, people close to him say he was expecting a guilty charge. “He absolutely anticipated it,” says Rep. Cory Mills, one of the first congressional allies to join Trump in court. “He saw the writing on the wall.” Now the Trump campaign is corralling the entire GOP apparatus around a crusade that has the effect of undermining faith in the rule of law.

Trump’s tight grip over the GOP only made that easier. As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, he’s currently leading in most polls over President Joe Biden, including in most of the battleground states. Few within his party want to get crosswise with Trump, who has a history of humiliating heretics. On Tuesday, Trump endorsed state Sen. John McGuire’s primary challenge against Rep. Bob Good, the Virginia congressman who endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The week before, Good trekked with Trump to court for a display of obeisance. 

The verdict produced fresh signs that GOP dissension could pose politically existential risks. After former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who’s running for a Senate seat in a liberal state, told voters to “respect the verdict,” one of Trump’s senior advisers sent a message. “You just ended your campaign,” wrote Chris LaCivita on X. 

Trump has already capitalized on his felony conviction. His campaign says it raised a stunning $34.8 million in less than 12 hours. In comparison, Trump raised roughly $4 million after his mug shot was released last August. Brandishing the haul as a sign of grassroots support, Trump’s camp says that roughly 30% of the contributions came from small-dollar donors new to the WinRed online platform. The figures will not be verifiable until the campaign’s next filing with the Federal Election Commission.

Part of their success stemmed from the coordinated, multi-pronged effort by prominent Republican officials to discredit Trump’s legal woes. “I'm not surprised that there was a lot of cohesive messaging,” says Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump-allied GOP operative. “This trial has been in the public spotlight for six weeks. They've had a year to prepare for that conviction statement.”

On Thursday, a jury of five women and seven men found Trump guilty on 34 charges of falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments to a porn star ahead of the 2016 election. The trial centered on whether Trump ordered his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to pay Stormy Daniels $130,000 and then lie on official documents to cover up a campaign finance violation.

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Despite the jury’s unanimous verdict, Trump’s closest allies took aim at the judge and the prosecutor. On Fox News, Speaker Mike Johnson characterized the case as driven by “old charges” and a “tainted judge.” He referred to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who brought the case, as “an open Biden supporter” and a “political activist.” To even some Republicans, the volume and intensity of right-wing rhetoric undercutting the judicial system was alarming. “Just like undermining faith in the outcome of our elections is worrisome for anybody who cares about democracy,” says Ayres. 

Those broadsides are not likely to abate. Judge Juan Merchan scheduled Trump’s sentencing hearing for July 11, just days before this summer’s Republican National Convention. Trump has vowed to appeal the ruling, which can stretch far beyond November, but the campaign is shifting from the courtroom to the campaign, where they will test whether American voters want to elevate for the first time a convicted criminal to the nation’s highest office. 

“The President is going to allow his defense attorneys to continue to do what they need to do,” says Mills. “But now it’s his time to get back on the trail.” 

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