The trial will test Trump’s limits on reaping political gains from legal troubles

For all their bluster, no one in Donald J. Trump’s political inner circle actually thinks a criminal conviction will help him with the independent voters and suburban women who lost him the 2020 presidency.

But since Mr. Trump was first indicted, he and his team have viewed securing the nomination as a vital imperative. And as he is set to become the first former president of the United States to stand trial, some of those advisers — who have long understood that his freedom is tied to the outcome of the 2024 election — see a silver lining in the calendar.

On Thursday, a New York judge set March 25 for the start of a trial on charges brought by the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, accusing Mr. Trump of falsifying business records to conceal reimbursements for a secret cash payment made on Thursday. 2016 to a porn star who said she had a relationship with him in the past.

Legal observers have commented that, compared to the charges Mr. Trump faces for hanging on to sensitive national security documents and obstructing attempts to retrieve them, or charges that accuse him of conspiring to defraud the United States in an attempt to overturn the election, the silence of the bills seems far less heavy.

And those charges for secret money represent a serious crime and a relatively short possible jail time.

“There is absolutely no crime in this lawless case,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, insisting that it was an attempt to interfere in the election and that Mr. Bragg “should instead be focused on cleaning up New York” and local crime.

On a personal level, Mr. Trump is deeply unhappy about the case. That includes nastiness about his personal life and angered him when details of the secret money became public in 2018, while he was president. He made it clear to associates that he wanted to see it go.

But politically, Trump’s advisers have used the hush money indictment to great effect. It was his first indictment against the four he faced in the 2024 primary cycle, leading to a big boost in his fundraising and prompting skeptical Republicans — including his opponents — to question the charges.

The Trump team’s approach since Bragg was indicted has been to portray all of his criminal exposure — 91 felony counts in all — as part of one grand conspiracy by President Biden and the Democrats to stop him.

“This is all from the DOJ, this is all coming from Washington,” Mr. Trump said after the hearing that set the trial date, extending his baseless claim to several civil lawsuits he has faced. He once again tried to postpone the proceedings, but to no avail.

“It’s all rigged — it’s a rigged state, it’s a rigged city, it’s a shame,” Mr. Trump said, shortly after the judge, Judge Juan M. Mercan, said the case involved “serious allegations” of concealing a payment that affects elections.

Mr. Trump has offered no support for his claim that every legal case he has faced has been manipulated from above, and never has been.

And for him, there is a significant lack of a local trial: Unlike in federal cases, Mr. Trump cannot seek a pardon if he becomes president again. Still, questions remain about the practical reality of sentencing an elected president to prison in a local case.

And as a matter of raw political optics ahead of Election Day, the first hush money trial means a month of intense media attention focused on things the public might be less upset about than if the federal election subversion trial in Washington had gone first, as it did. expected.

“You can get a lot of witnesses who will say that it wasn’t inappropriate, that it’s done all the time, and actually what you’re willing to pay is not an admission of any guilt, it’s that he didn’t want publicity, and it’s done quite often,” Newt said. Gingrich, former Republican House Speaker and Trump ally.

Trump allies have repeatedly pointed to the fact that Mr. Bragg is a Democrat and that his predecessor, along with federal prosecutors, did not press charges related to the facts of the case to bolster their claims about the victim. (Mr. Bragg represents a municipality where Democrats overwhelmingly make up registered voters).

Mr Trump complained on Thursday that the trial would prevent him from campaigning. But in January he decided to attend two civil trials he was facing that he was not required to attend, in part because, an aide said privately, he saw the appearances as campaign events.

The Trump campaign has been preparing for evening events with Mr. Trump in New York and other locations during the hush money trial.

“I can’t overstate this,” said Mr. Gingrich. “Donald Trump is not a candidate. Donald Trump is the leader of a movement, and the leaders of the movement are psychologically profoundly different from the candidates.” The reason, he said, is because his supporters are “followers. They are not voters.”

Mr. Trump will test the limits of the benefits his political campaign can bring from the criminal justice system.

The star witness in the case, Michael D. Cohen, worked for Mr. Trump for years and testified at a 2019 House hearing that helped fuel the New York attorney general’s successful civil fraud case against Mr. Trump and his company. Mr. Trump and his allies have repeatedly condemned Mr. Cohen, who has laid out his experiences working for the former president in a tell-all book and in interviews.

A parade of other witnesses from the period may also offer testimony that is problematic for him.

And in three separate trials in Manhattan, three juries have ruled against Mr. Trump or his companies in the past two years. Some strategists argue that while making Mr. Bragg a villain, he can work with Republicans politically, it has no broader impact.

“I think the mistake that Trump is making is that at the end of the day this is not going to be Alvin Bragg, it’s going to be a jury of his fellow citizens, and Americans respect the jury system and take seriously the verdicts that jurors make. ” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.

Still, Mr. Trump was elected in 2016 despite a long trail of negative character incidents. And polls differ on how many of his supporters who say they will support him would abandon him if he is convicted.

“After the past eight years, that self-election alone is enough to tell you that they’re not going to have much trouble explaining away a negative legal ruling, let alone one on dubious grounds,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist.

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