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4 takeaways from the historic felony conviction of Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on May 20, 2024. A jury found Trump guilty of all 34 felony counts on Thursday.
Dave Sanders
The New York Times via AP, Pool
Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on May 20, 2024. A jury found Trump guilty of all 34 felony counts on Thursday.

For the first time in American history, a former president has been found guilty of a crime.

A jury of his peers in New York unanimously found Donald Trump guilty on all 34 counts of falsifying business records in order to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Remarkably, this is taking place in an election year in which said former president is running for his old job back, and it will undoubtedly have political consequences.

“The real verdict is going to be Nov. 5 by the people,” Trump said outside the New York courtroom after the verdict.

“There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box,” Michael Tyler, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement.

Well, they agree on one thing.

So what will the political fallout from all of this be? Let’s dive in with these takeaways from a momentous day in American history:

1. Donald Trump is still going to be the Republican nominee.

Technically, the Republican Party’s nominating convention hasn’t happened yet, so it could, in theory, select another candidate.

But that’s not happening. Republicans are lining up behind Trump, from the speaker of the House to the cadre of Trump allies auditioning to be his vice presidential running mate.

Trump has full control over the Republican National Committee. He has installed loyalists in state parties across the country, and because of that, he’s in a stronger position with the Republican Party than in 2016 when he beat back a convention coup attempt from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and allies.

This is Trump’s party. Full stop. He’s going to be nominated by the party. It will take place, incredibly, just days after he’s scheduled to be sentenced in this case (July 11).

And he’s going to be on the ballot this November.

Also, to be clear: Trump is not going to prison, legal experts believe, because he does not have a prior criminal record. This crime is punishable by anything from probation to a degree of house arrest, and up to four years in prison.

It’s also not at all clear that Trump will lose his voting rights in Florida, despite the felony conviction.

Plus, Trump is going to appeal, so any real consequences, if the verdict is upheld, potentially won’t come for months.

2. Yes, Trump’s base is likely to stick with him, but this isn’t the primary anymore.

Trump was able to raise gobs of money during the primary off indictments, and he only grew stronger during that time — with Republicans.

Now the real test comes, and that’s with a general-election audience. There are some key questions:

  • Will this conviction resonate with persuadable voters in key swing states? 

  • Does this do anything to rally support to President Biden’s side with voters he’s been struggling with, like younger voters, Black voters and Latinos? They’ve been lukewarm toward Biden, in part, because of affordability, housing costs and his age, but will they want to vote for a “convicted felon” or will they sit it out or support a third-party candidate?

  • Especially important in a year that’s expected to have lower turnout than four years ago, will this verdict rally or suppress turnout among some rank-and-file potential Trump voters, especially white voters without college degrees? They make up a core part of Trump’s base, but they are a group whose participation rates have been lower than others through the years. Republicans would say absolutely not, that this will only galvanize his base.

The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll suggests most voters will not be swayed either way. It showed that some, including younger voters, might be moved at the margins, but this may be a reset moment in the campaign.

It’s a historic moment in American history. Many Americans are likely going to be just tuning in now to learn about the conviction. And the bottom line is: The last thing Trump wanted was “Trump” and “convicted felon” in the same headline. And barring an overturn on appeal before the election, that’s what will be attached to him as voters weigh their choices.

3. The ball is in Biden’s court to see if he can capitalize on this politically.

The president has been very cautious about speaking out about Trump’s legal woes. With Trump continuing to dominate the news with wall-to-wall coverage of the trials, it’s been hard for the Biden campaign to break through.

It makes sense in a very important respect that Biden, up until the verdict, did not hammer Trump on his legal problems. He is president, and he didn’t want to show any hint of impropriety and has not wanted to appear, in any way, to be influencing the Justice Department’s federal investigations of Trump or and state prosecutors.

That hasn’t stopped Trump and conservative media from saying exactly that, though — and worse. But now, with this verdict, and with this likely to be the only trial Trump faces before the election — despite three other major, election-related cases against him — expect Biden to lean into this.

The line Biden has to toe is between being president and being a candidate. The White House counsel’s office essentially said no comment, but Biden’s campaign has weighed in, noting that the New York case shows “no one is above the law.”

Now, Biden has to choose. And right now, he’s slightly behind in the race. So the question isn’t really whether Biden will talk about the conviction, but whether he’s capable of delivering and capitalizing on it.

4. The verdict raises the stakes for big moments coming up in the campaign.

There will be challenges for both Biden and Trump now with how to spin this to their respective advantages.

The attempts started fast and furious. Trump and his surrogates denounced the legitimacy of the verdict immediately afterward, and both campaigns were quickly out with statements and fundraising appeals.

It’s indicative of the fact that this is a presidential campaign year, and every turn will get heightened focus.

There are going to be some big moments coming up that will provide opportunities and risks for the candidates on this:

  • June 27: First, there’s the very early debate both candidates agreed to, taking place in less than a month. Can Biden use this to his advantage effectively? Can Trump defend himself in a way that doesn’t alienate middle-of-the-road voters? 

  • July 15-18: The next signposts are the conventions. The Republicans are up first in Milwaukee, just days after Trump’s scheduled sentencing in this case. Expect Trump and his team to try to use that week to rally the base, unify and make sure there are no cracks in the foundation. 

  • Aug. 19-22: Then, it's the Democrats' turn in Chicago. Can Biden use the conviction to shore up his coalition, which is showing some gaping holes right now, and assure voters who continue to question his mental fitness that he’s up for the job? Remember, Democrats are also fretting about potential protests that could make the party look divided.

  • Sept. 10: It’s the last debate, which kicks off the sprint to the finish and perhaps the last, big chance for either candidate to make their case. Early voting begins not long after.

The campaigns will be trying hard to turn out every last voter they think should vote for them to show up — and Trump’s conviction is likely to be a very large piece of the campaign going forward.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.