Politics / May 30, 2024

Why the Election Is the Trump Verdict That Really Matters

How the trials, tactics, and verdicts are a sideshow.

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media during a break in his criminal trial on May 29, 2024, in New York City.(Yuki Iwamura / Pool/Getty Images)

As this is written, what the press dubs Donald Trump’s hush-money case has gone to the jury. The closing arguments of the defense led the talk shows that have given the trial wall-to-wall coverage. Pundits speculate about what will happen to Trump if he’s found guilty, what a verdict will mean to the presidential election. The other cases against Trump also receive constant attention—the preposterous delays provided by a Trump-appointed federal judge in the classified documents case and by the Supreme Court around presidential immunity concerning his efforts to overturn the 2020 election that culminated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Similarly, Trump’s serial fulminations and calumnies at press conferences or on social media capture constant front-page treatment.

By highlighting every jot and jolt of the legal process, the press invariably ignores the shared reality of the various cases. In each case, there is no real dispute about the basic facts involved. Trump’s actions are not in question. We know what he did on January 6, in his efforts to get election officials to fix the vote total in Georgia, in his fake elector schemes. We know that he took classified documents to Mar-a-Lago and bizarrely resisted efforts of the Archives and FBI to recover them. We know that he paid hush money to Stormy Daniels in the last days of the 2016 election. Although he denies knowing her, a jury has already determined that he molested and defamed E. Jean Carroll.

The flood of reporting on legal tactics, judicial malpractice, Trump’s behavior inside the courtrooms and out, and potential legal consequences ironically serves to obscure this basic reality.

It also exaggerates the importance of the trials and verdicts. By now, voters have a pretty clear sense of what Trump has done and have decided about how much they care. Democratic hopes notwithstanding, the verdicts are unlikely to make much of a difference to Trump loyalists or to Biden voters. Significant percentages of so-called undecided or independent voters, much exaggerated in numbers, are also unlikely to swing on the basis of verdicts about matters that are already established.

Legal pundits declaim about the importance of Trump’s being held accountable in a court of law. The precedent that would be set if he were found innocent or if the verdicts were thrown out on appeal, or if the right-wing zealots on the Supreme Court decide he’s immune from prosecution would surely be deplorable.

The reality, however, is that Trump is already being held accountable in the courts, simply by having the cases go forward. The trials, the tactics, the verdicts are all sideshows to the fact of the trials.

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In the end, it is the election—and the voters—that will decide if Trump is held accountable or not. If voters decide to elect him, that will be the final verdict. The verdicts in the cases will be irrelevant—and probably erased by presidential pardon. If he is defeated, that verdict will do more to inform the future behavior of presidents than any of the court cases.

This reality exposes the perils of the 24/7 press coverage of Trump and his trials. The press is once more collaborating with Trump to enable him to dominate the news. You don’t have to buy the old saw that any press—good or bad—is good so long as they spell your name right. Trump, a corrupt and shoddy businessman born with a silver spoon in his mouth, has invented a persona as a rebel, an outsider willing to take on a corrupt establishment. He paints himself as the victim because he champions the betrayed majority. “I am your retribution.” He rails against the prosecutions as a Biden election conspiracy. The wall-to-wall coverage only provides a constant stage for his dishonest shtick.

No doubt a former president on trial will attract the news. But the press could do far more to balance its coverage. Provide equal time for Biden’s campaign or actions as president. Report on the horrors of Trump’s agenda—what the cost and chaos of his pledge to deport 10 million undocumented workers would be for example, detail the consequence of four more years of climate denial, expose Trump’s plans to destroy the civil service, give more ink to his shamelessly corrupt offers to pass the agenda of Big Oil if they’ll ante up $1 billion to his campaigns and more. Instead of echoing Trump’s public posturing, do more to expose the corrupt little man behind the curtain.

The media excuse, of course, is that Trump’s travails and tribulations attract viewers. He may be bad for the republic, but for the media, he’s money. The problem is that the rest of us may end up with the bill.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editorial director and publisher of The Nation, America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture. She served as editor of the magazine from 1995 to 2019.

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