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The Trump trial has been vaudeville but its outcome could yet decide the US election

April 2024 Courtroom sketch by Christine Cornell of Trump trial | Alamy

4 min read

The last few weeks have seen the revival of a dying art form: the courtroom sketch. In America, every state makes its own courtroom rules; so, back in the 1990s, live TV coverage of the California-based OJ Simpson trial gripped the American nation.

By contrast, the Donald Trump hush-money trial has been conducted in a camera-free zone – cameras having been banned in New York courtrooms since the 1930s. 
Instead the artists work at extraordinary speed producing multiple sketches every day. To my eye, they succeed brilliantly in capturing the essence of Trump. But they are the first to recognise the quality of their raw material. 

One of them, Christine Cornell, has said of Trump: “His hair is fabulous; I draw it from the back of the head forward like a swoop of gold.” (Incidentally, according to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, this is precisely the way – though with comb rather than crayon – Trump himself begins his daily hair construction routine.)

But these art-rich days are coming to an end. Closing arguments are expected imminently and a verdict by the end of May. And speculation is mounting about the consequences for election day, 5 November, less than six months away. 

This criminal trial is one of four that Trump is facing, and by a distance the least serious. But the other three, alleging that he plotted to overturn the 2020 election result, that he conspired to reverse his narrow loss in Georgia, and that he mishandled classified documents, are all, thanks to the delaying tactics of Trump’s lawyers, submerged in the swampy waters of the American justice system and may not resurface before the election. 

So, this could be it: a single-shot penalty shootout. And how’s it going? If Trump were acquitted, it would be a huge boost for him. The waverers might take it as permission to vote for him and he could surf his victory wave all the way to the White House. 

But to judge by American mainstream media reporting, it’s going badly for the former president; the prosecution has reportedly been masterly, the defence ineffective. Trump’s unofficial biographer, the independent-minded Michael Wolff, went further, telling Sky News recently that Trump is “headed for a conviction”. 

Might this be the end of him; the Orange One fading into a similarly coloured sunset? 
“No” is my answer, for at least three reasons.  First, it wouldn’t stop him continuing to run for the top office. As a convicted felon, he wouldn’t, for example, be allowed to run for the state legislature in West Virginia, or even allowed to vote in Alabama – but the founding fathers placed no such restriction on the presidency. Indeed, back in 1920, self-described socialist Eugene V Debs actually ran for the presidency from prison; what’s more, he got almost a million votes. 

Secondly, Trump would certainly appeal, with two levels of potential redress: the New York Supreme Court’s appellate division and thereafter the state of New York court of appeals. 
And thirdly, Trump has, to date, successfully weaponised his legal troubles in support of his political ambitions. He has repeatedly claimed to be the victim of a politically motivated succession of prosecutions masterminded by the Biden Justice Department. And with each announcement of new prosecutions, his personal ratings have risen. 

But would the same be true if Trump were dealt a conviction? Opinions among American political pundits differ, but recent polls suggest Trump and his team should be worried. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll reported that, if convicted, 16 per cent of Trump supporters would reconsider their support for him and four per cent would withdraw it. 

In a narrow election, this could be crucial. So the landscape is littered with known unknowns – too many to allow informed predictions. However, if the US election is The Greatest Show on Earth, then this episode, with its colourful cast of fairground characters, is pure vaudeville: but it is still potentially decisive. 

 

Lord Darroch, crossbench peer and former British ambassador to the US

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