What does the E Jean Carroll verdict mean for Donald Trump’s chances in 2024?
Donald Trump’s civil trial over a rape allegation brought against him by E Jean Carroll has concluded, with the former president being found liable for sexual abuse of the author in 1996.
The conclusion of the trial is far from the end of the legal battle over Ms Carroll’s allegation, as the former president says he intends to appeal the jury’s decision, which cleared him of rape. But for now, he remains tarred with the jury’s finding that Ms Carroll’s claims were credible, and their ruling that he must pay $5m in damages as a result.
Financially, it’s a drop in the bucket for the resort and hotel chain mogul-turned-politician, who continues to make millions off of politically charged Trump brand now as a private citizen. The real question for the Republican ex-president is whether this latest legal blow will affect his chances for 2024, where he remains the strongest candidate (currently) running for the GOP nomination.
Already, Mr Trump’s rivals for the nomination have begun to work the latest development into their strategies. Asa Hutchinson, the newest-comer to the 2024 Republican primary, released a statement shortly after the announcement that the Carroll verdict was proof of the disregard Mr Trump had for the law.
“I have seen firsthand how a cavalier and arrogant contempt for the rule of law can backfire. The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump,” he said.
And Republican Senator John Cornyn, closely aligned with Mr Trump’s greatest rival on Capitol Hill, Mitch McConnell, put it plainly to CBS News: “I don’t think he can get elected”.
“You have to appeal to a broader spectrum of people and he just never seems to try to do that. So to me, that’s the reason why I don’t think he can get elected,” Mr Cornyn added to NBC News.
But do those attacks really matter when the Republican voting base is predisposed to believing that the bevy of legal fights entangling their leader are political conjurations of Democratic district attorneys and activists? A poll released in April by YouGov/The Economist found that a whopping 81 per cent of those who voted Republican in 2020 disapproved of the decision made by Manhattan’s district attorney to criminally charge the ex-president in the Stormy Daniels matter. It’s hard to see many of those voters seeing this case any differently, given especially the length of time between Ms Carroll’s alleged encounter with Mr Trump and the lawsuit’s filing itself.
J Miles Coleman, a polling analyst at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, argues that if anything, the result of efforts by law enforcement or in this case the New York court system to hold Mr Trump to account for alleged offences has created a martyr effect that energises his most loyal supporters.
“Trump's supporters see these investigations as another attempt by liberals to go after him. It's also sort of put other Republicans between a rock and a hard place,” he explained to The Independent. “For someone like [likely 2024 rival Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis, if he joins in on the criticism, he's ’siding with the left,’ as some die-hard Trumpers put it. But if he praises Trump too much, it's like, ok, if he's so great, why not just endorse him?”
“Looking to the general election, my prior is basically that this hurts Trump, but maybe not by as much as you'd expect. Most of the electorate by now knows about Trump's not-ideal ethical dealings -- they either already voted against him or just don't care. How many more voters would, say, a conviction of some sort turn off who don't already dislike him? I don't think it would be a huge chunk of the electorate,” Mr Coleman continued.
Conservative pundit Erick Erickson, a former #NeverTrump Republican who changed his tune and later became a supporter of the Trump movement, made the same argument. The real danger for Mr Trump, he asserted on Twitter, has always been the overall effect of the numerous long legal fights which have the potential to drain the ex-president’s time or finances further than any individual verdict.
“Don’t really see how this hurts Trump. Access Hollywood didn’t hurt. This is a NYC jury. The verdict won’t hurt. The drip drip drip of litigation bogging him down can potentially hurt,” Mr Erickson wrote.
In the end, the biggest question may be for Mr Trump’s 2024 rivals. Can they find a way to attack the man they must inevitably defeat to claim the nomination without enraging his followers in the process? Is taking that risk worth it, knowing that the best opportunity in such a scenario could present itself to the candidate (or candidates) who remains silent?
When Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio attempted to match Donald Trump’s aggressive energy and join in the mud-slinging in 2016, they lost. Untrained in the art of trash-talking, they chose a fight with a reality TV star and brash New York businessman with a penchant for developing embarassing nicknames for his foes.
Among his likely 2024 rivals — Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, and Asa Hutchinson — there doesn’t yet appear to be a figure emerging with the bold, unapologetic combativeness needed to take on such a challenge. That could change as the Republican primary moves into the summer months and the debate season begins, but Democrats hoping to see Mr Trump go down early against one of his own shouldn’t get their hopes up.