Former President Donald Trump leaves the courthouse after a jury found him guilty of all 34 felony counts in his criminal hush money trial on May 30, 2024. 
Justin Lane/Pool/Reuters

Donald Trump’s first act on becoming a convicted criminal was to launch a raging new attack on the rule of law, laying bare the gravity of the choice awaiting America’s voters.

In one sense, Trump’s conviction on all counts in his first criminal trial affirmed the principle on which the United States is founded — that everyone is equal and that no one, not even a billionaire and former and possibly future president, enjoys impunity.

But Trump’s authoritarian outburst minutes after the guilty verdict in New York and a race by top Republicans to join his assault on the justice system underscore how threatened those bedrock values now are.

“This was a rigged, disgraceful trial. The real verdict is going to be November 5, by the people, and they know what happened here and everybody knows what happened here,” Trump said minutes after a jury foreperson announced he was guilty on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment to an adult film star. After returning to Trump Tower and greeting supporters with a clenched fist, Trump issued a written statement that made clear that he views his own fate and the nation’s as indistinguishable — a familiar hallmark of a dictatorial leader. “I’m a very innocent man, and it’s okay, I’m fighting for our country. I’m fighting for our Constitution. Our whole country is being rigged right now,” Trump wrote.

President Joe Biden’s campaign echoed his opponent’s belief that the ultimate judgment on the former president will come in the general election.

“Today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality,” said campaign communications director Michael Tyler. “There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president,” Tyler said. “The threat Trump poses to our democracy has never been greater.”

A moment of personal anguish with national consequences

Trump’s conviction by a unanimous New York jury was the most painful low of a tumultuous life of denying accountability that has seen financial boom and bust, three marriages, television stardom, frequent brushes with the law, the triumph of his outsider 2016 election win, a norm-shattering presidency and an attempt to destroy democracy to stay in power after losing in 2020.

Judging by his red-faced shock outside the courtroom, the verdict was a moment of personal anguish. Given that he’s got a good chance of being the next president, it is sure to become a grave national test as well.

Trump had pleaded not guilty in a trial that is one of four criminal cases entangled with the 2024 presidential election and the only one likely to see a jury before the election. Responses to any motions from the defense in the hush money case are due by June 27 — the day of the first presidential debate, hosted by CNN. Trump’s sentencing hearing is set for July 11, just days before he’ll secure the nomination at the Republican National Convention and around when he’s said he’d announce his vice presidential pick. Already, his legal defenses have morphed with his political strategy in a narrative of political persecution, and he is vowing that he will devote a possible second term to “retribution” against his foes.

Among an electorate that Trump has constantly polarized, the verdict is likely to be greeted with fury by his supporters and jubilation by his critics. But in truth, this is a somber and even tragic passage of US history. Americans have never seen an ex-president convicted of a crime, and a country already torn apart by bitter political and cultural polarization is likely in for a rocky time.

The implications are enormous.

They begin with the potential consequences for an election in five months that could be decided by the shift of just a few thousand votes in a few states. Trump has been preparing voters for months for the possibility that he would be found guilty in a case that prosecutors said centered around a bid to mislead voters in 2016. He’s claimed his four criminal indictments are a plot by Biden to destroy him. In essence, he’s been working to shatter his greatest norm yet — the idea that it would be unthinkable for a felon to serve as president.

Supporters hold placards and flags following the announcement of the verdict in Trump’s criminal trial. 
Andrew Kelly/Reuters

No one can know how voters will react to Trump’s latest moment of ignominy. His conviction will certainly energize his loyal base and his campaign will try to create a backlash to the verdict among more moderate voters. If they succeed, Thursday could come to be remembered as the day Biden lost the election.

Or, the guilty verdict could play into Biden’s campaign theme that his predecessor is too corrupt and extreme to serve as president again. Moderate and suburban voters whom Trump has always struggled to attract could be further alienated.

But Trump’s tactics and his capacity to shape the views of his supporters — with the aid of the conservative media machine — will inevitably mean that the legal system will join the electoral system as another essential institution of American governance that is now viewed as illegitimate by millions of citizens.

And if it is Trump who raises his hand to swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution on January 20 as the 47th president, America will be led by a criminal whose duties will include being the symbolic head of the justice system. The danger is acute because with his attempt to stay in power after losing the 2020 election, Trump has already shown he will do what it takes to save himself, even if his actions catastrophically hurt democratic institutions.

Profound reverberations of the Trump trial verdict

CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali said Thursday that Trump’s call to arms for a campaign against the legal system will mean that every Republican will be forced to put it at the center of their 2024 campaigns. “That is going to create, in my view, a torrent of poison that will be likely worse than we saw in the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign that preceded January 6. And that is going to further unsettle an already sensitive country,” Naftali said. “I worry about it because the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign created widespread doubt about the honesty of our electoral system and led many people to believe that fraud had been committed in 2020.”

A question that long hovered over this trial is whether the crime — falsifying financial records to hide a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels to mislead voters in 2016 — was sufficiently serious for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to risk the extraordinary political consequences of indicting an ex-president. Prosecutors’ use of Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen as their star witness, despite his own conviction on tax charges and for lying to Congress, was deeply controversial. Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins Thursday that the timing of the trial — in the middle of an election campaign — was unfair to the ex-president.

But the charges were not just cooked up by prosecutors as Trump claimed. They were brought by a grand jury. The ex-president was offered the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and he was judged by a jury of his peers. Even now, the Constitution he claims has been hijacked will protect him with a full array of appeals, as in all of his other criminal cases.

But once a jury has delivered a verdict, justice is considered served. So the immediate Republican attacks on the judge, the court and the verdict represent an extraordinary effort by one of the country’s two major political parties to turn against the integrity of the legal system.

Eric Trump listens as former President Donald Trump speaks to the media after being found guilty on all 34 counts in his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024. 
Justin Lane/Pool/Getty Images

The GOP is showing — after failing to convict Trump in two impeachments and after many of its most prominent members repeated his lies about the 2020 election — that there is nothing that he can do that will sever the party’s cult-like embrace of its leader. This suggests that any Trump second term would feature even fewer constraints than his wild first one. And it raises questions about his claim to be running a “law and order” campaign.

One of the first Republicans to react was New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the House GOP conference chair who is seen as a possible Trump vice presidential pick. “Today’s verdict shows how corrupt, rigged, and un-American the weaponized justice system has become under Joe Biden and Democrats,” Stefanik said. “From the start, the weaponized scales of justice were stacked against President Trump.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who traveled to support Trump during his trial and helped to fuel false claims of electoral fraud in 2020, brought the symbolic weight of his office to support Trump and attack the legal system. “Today is a shameful day in American history. Democrats cheered as they convicted the leader of the opposing party on ridiculous charges, predicated on the testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon. This was a purely political exercise, not a legal one,” the Louisiana Republican claimed.

Another top Trump ally, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said there was never a chance of a fair trial in a city which drew its jury pool from one of the most liberal areas in America. “This verdict says more about the system than the allegations. It will be seen as politically motivated and unfair, and it will backfire tremendously on the political Left,” Graham said. “This is a mockery of justice.”

Graham’s comment promoted an idea that’s taken hold among conservatives that a Republican leader can only get a fair trial if they are judged in a jurisdiction where they are popular — a proposition that would effectively permanently politicize justice.

One Republican who refused to join the rush to trash the verdict is former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who’s running for Senate. “At this dangerously divided moment in our history, all leaders—regardless of party—must not pour fuel on the fire with more toxic partisanship,” Hogan said in a statement ahead of the verdict being announced. Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign wrote on X: “You just ended your campaign.”

Hogan’s comment would once have been a standard Republican reaction to the conviction of a top-level politician. In another age, a guilty verdict would have immediately ended Trump’s campaign. The fact that the newly convicted criminal is already using it as a springboard to power speaks to volatile days ahead.

“This verdict shows two different things,” Naftali said.

“The first is that the former president can be indicted and found guilty by a group of his peers. And that shows the strength of our system. The other verdict, though, hasn’t come in and the other verdict is, can the powerful use our political system to escape the consequences of being found guilty? And that verdict is in November.”

As reported by CNN