Opinion: The Republican response to Trump’s conviction is telling

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the forthcoming book, “Our Nation at Risk: Election Integrity as a National Security Issue.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Former President Donald Trump showed little remorse on Friday after a jury in Manhattan convicted him on 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up hush-money payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Nearly a decade after he first descended the escalator in Trump Tower and announced his presidential bid in 2015, Trump once again took center stage at his namesake building on Fifth Avenue. “If they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone,” he warned. Trump also baselessly pointed the finger at “Biden and his people,” called it a “rigged trial” and declared himself a “very innocent man.” He went on to attack Judge Juan Merchan, who presided over the trial, saying he “looks like an angel but really [is] a devil.”

Regardless of what Trump claims, the guilty verdict was historic. Trump has become the first former president convicted of criminal charges. Though he will surely appeal the decision, Trump now continues on the 2024 campaign trail as a felon. Americans have repeatedly witnessed Trump evade accountability; this time, the legal system didn’t buckle. His usual tactics of delay, obstruction, intimidation and obfuscation did not work. Given all the attacks on our democracy and rule of law in recent years, this is a moment that should not be taken lightly.

But the political implications of the decision are far from clear. The big question remains: Will a conviction shake the current political dynamic of the 2024 election? The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. After all, any prior polling was based on a hypothetical situation that had never occurred before in American history.

Given the immediate reaction from Republicans, and what we already know about Trump, it’s entirely likely that the conviction will have little impact on voters.

In the past 24 hours, Republicans have been lining up more quickly than kids at an ice cream truck to discredit the judicial process and declare their support for Trump. The trial, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio argued, was “conducted by an openly pro-Biden Judge.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz quipped that Merchan “should have worn a Biden campaign hat while he sat on the bench.” Always focused on partisan power, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said he will support Trump in the 2024 election, wrote that the trial “never should have been brought in the first place.”

The intensity of Republican support is so strong that when Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican and former Maryland governor who stands an excellent chance of winning the state’s open US Senate seat, urged voters to “respect” the verdict, fellow party members jumped all over him. Chris LaCivita, a campaign adviser to Trump, went so far as to say that Hogan’s campaign was now over.

Trump’s campaign, of course, went into fundraising mode, reportedly raking in more than $34 million in the hours after his conviction. Without missing a beat, the Trump National Committee blasted out a message to supporters: “Friend: Is this the end of America? I was just convicted in a RIGGED political Witch Hunt trial: I DID NOTHING WRONG! They’ve raided my home, arrested me, took my mugshot, AND NOW THEY’VE JUST CONVICTED ME!” Meanwhile, Trump himself attended a fundraiser in Manhattan on Thursday, where Republican donors including Blackstone CEO Steve Schwartzman were in attendance.

It is important to remember that Republican support for Trump has already withstood many supposed “turning points” that would have tanked politicians in earlier eras. Trump is a twice-impeached, one-term president who attempted to overturn the 2020 election. He has been indicted in three other criminal cases (Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges). He also was found guilty of defamation in a civil suit brought by writer E. Jean Carroll and ordered to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages. Many of his associates have been found guilty of wrongdoing over the years (see Paul Manafort), and yet the GOP has never left him. He is the presumptive Republican nominee for 2024 and polls show that he remains slightly ahead of President Joe Biden in most swing states.

The biggest issue for Trump is how this will play out among moderates and independents and whether a significant number of them will be turned off by the conviction come November 5. Moreover, the conviction could energize some Democrats who have been lethargic in their support for Biden.

That impact, of course, could be dulled if the verdict effectively supercharges Republicans. For every moderate who is turned off, there could be a Republican more determined than ever before to mobilize, donate and get out the vote for their allegedly persecuted leader. Of course, some independents might be swayed by these arguments as well, ironically equating a vote for Trump as a vote to uphold law and order.

As it stands, it seems Trump and his supporters have been at an advantage in spinning the decision. Biden has since responded, saying that Trump’s reaction was “reckless.” “It’s irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged, just because they don’t like the verdict,” he added. Biden’s communications director, Michael Tyler, took a slightly stronger stance, saying, “America just witnessed a confused, desperate, and defeated Donald Trump ramble about his own personal grievances and lie about the American justice system, leaving anyone watching with one obvious conclusion: This man cannot be president of the United States.”

While the Biden campaign has also fundraised off the verdict, the president and many Democrats may be leery of saying too much, lest it play into GOP accusations that this was all a political trial. But that also means Democrats could potentially lose control of the narrative.

For those who think this is a political “turning point,” recent history suggests that the verdict is still out.

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