Donald Trump Donald Trump. Photo: White House / Public Domain

The ruling centre in the US hoped that a conviction of Trump would finish him, but the crimes and weakness of their own candidate leaves the election wide open, argues John Clarke

After he was convicted at the end of May on 34 counts of falsifying business records, an ABC News headline proclaimed that ‘Donald Trump becomes 1st US president tried and convicted of crimes.’ Without dismissing the considerable political significance of this development, it’s worth noting that, if the criminality of US presidents were fairly assessed, Trump’s improper business dealings would be very small potatoes indeed.

Noam Chomsky has famously asserted that if ‘the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged’ and the historical record lends considerable support to this proposition. It’s enough to note the present occupant of the White House has earned himself the nickname ‘Genocide Joe’ for his robust efforts to enable the genocide unfolding in Gaza. For that matter, Trump himself headed up an administration that was responsible, as Truthout has noted, for ‘the indiscriminate bombings of schools, hospitals, homes and mosques.’

Despite this qualification, when the crimes of a US president land them in court, then something is going on of which it is worth taking stock. The extensive efforts to convict Trump speak to massive tensions and considerable instability within the ruling establishment that are coming to a head as a presidential election looms.

Hush money trial

After ten hours of deliberations, a New York jury found Trump guilty of committing 34 felonies. The case dealt with a hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels, described by the media as a ‘porn star,’ so as to prevent details of her ‘2006 alleged sexual encounter’ with Trump undermining ‘his electoral prospects in the 2016 presidential election’. The prosecution contended that Trump falsified business records in order to facilitate this deception.

The payment to Daniels arose out of a ‘catch and kill’ deal that was set up in 2015, as Trump prepared his bid for the presidency. National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified that he met with Trump and his attorney, Michael Cohen, to discuss what his ‘magazines could do to help the campaign’. The meeting, however, came down to an undertaking on Pecker’s part to act as ‘eyes and ears’ for Trump’s campaign and to identify potentially negative stories related to his sexual activities.

Pecker told the jury that his company put this arrangement into effect when it ‘caught and killed two stories to help the campaign.’ This involved $30,000 and $150,000 payments in order to prevent unfavourable information from being released publicly. In 2016, Pecker informed Cohen that Daniels was ‘shopping a story of her 2006 alleged sexual encounter with Trump.’

Cohen testified that he brought the matter to Trump’s attention, ‘speaking with the then-Republican nominee nearly two dozen times in the month ahead of the election – and ultimately paid for the story out of his own pocket on Trump’s orders.’ He also asserted that the president reimbursed him ‘by making a series of $35,000 payments, labelled in business records as legal expenses pursuant to a retainer agreement.’

Trump chose not to testify on his own behalf, but he has been characteristically vocal throughout the proceedings. He has ‘repeatedly lashed out against key players in the case – including Cohen, Daniels, Bragg and Judge Juan Merchan, the judge presiding over the case – to the press during rallies and on social media.’ This prompted the judge to issue a gag order ‘prohibiting Trump from making public comments about the witnesses, jury, and family of Bragg or Merchan.’ His repeated violations of this order led to findings that he was in criminal contempt and threats that he would be imprisoned for further refusal to comply.

In response to the verdict, ‘Trump railed against the judge, and called the trial ‘rigged [and] disgraceful’. He made clear that his strategy is to sweep aside his present legal woes by returning to the White House in the upcoming election. Outside the courtroom, he noted that the ‘real verdict is going to be November 5, by the people, and they know what happened here and everybody knows what happened here.’

While a custodial sentence could be imposed for these crimes, it is of course massively unlikely that Trump will face any such outcome. Whatever the result, he obviously has the means to drag the matter out for a considerable period of time. The sentencing hearing, however, will take place on 11 July, which is just four days before the Republican National Convention, ensuring that the legal drama will be a big part of the political theatre.

Trump’s difficulties in the New York courtroom are only one episode in a much broader effort to hold him to account. He is the only US president to have been impeached twice and was accused of ‘incitement of insurrection’ after his supporters, refusing to accept his electoral defeat, stormed the US Capitol in 2021.

Trump faces three other criminal trials with potentially serious consequences. He faces a 37-count indictment on charges that he ‘held on to and mishandled piles of highly sensitive national security information at his Florida social club.’ He has also been charged with ‘conspiring to defraud the US by illegally subverting the results of the 2020 presidential election and the peaceful transfer of power.’

In Georgia, Trump is dealing with charges of ‘racketeering conspiracy’ and allegations of ‘illegally overturning the results of the 2020 election in the state.’ These charges carry a penalty of between five and twenty years in prison and, since they have been laid by a state and not at the federal level, Trump would not be able to pardon himself if he regains the presidency.

Political implications

That a former president and current candidate for presidential office faces such serious and unsavoury legal charges is quite remarkable. Beyond the courtroom saga, however, the political implications of what is unfolding are of even greater significance. No doubt, Trump’s conduct has merited prosecution, but the extensive effort to contain him with legal challenges speaks to very sharp divisions within the ruling establishment of the United States.

Those within the power structure who regard Trump, with his volatile and reactionary political base, as an erratic and dangerous player best kept out of the White House, have a major problem in terms of their alternative candidate. The last time the decidedly uninspiring Joe Biden went up against Trump, he only squeaked in and the election was ‘decided by a mere 42,918 votes across three swing states.’

In 2024, as the horror in Gaza unfolds with the indispensable support of Washington, ‘Genocide Joe’ has very little ability to present himself as a progressive alternative. Trump’s right-wing base doesn’t constitute a majority of voters, but it is easily large enough to secure victory if Democratic supporters are sufficiently revolted by the conduct of that party’s candidate. As it is, Biden can’t raise his head on the campaign trial without being confronted by those who rightly condemn him with regard to the Gaza genocide.

When Biden moved into the White House, he was promoted as a prudent and responsible political steward of US capitalism, who would restore trust and stability after the dangerous and volatile Trump period. The ‘Biden restoration,’ however, has proved to be a bitter disappointment. Promises of ‘restored U.S. leadership on the world stage’ have been dashed. After months of systematic slaughter in Gaza, the divisions within international institutions are at unprecedented levels. Even as a ‘lesser evil,’ Biden is a singularly unappealing proposition and his prospects of blocking Trump are shaky at best.

This weakness of the political centre in its contests with right-wing forces isn’t confined to the US but it is playing out there particularly sharply. The effort to criminalise and discredit Trump could have been effective, but this would have hinged on the presence of a credible and inspiring alternative. No one could seriously suggest that Biden represents any such thing.

For Trump, a return to power is clearly his best defence strategy. His base of support, caught up in a mood of reactionary rage, will see the charges against their hero as a reason to work for his election all the more diligently. Biden’s supporters, on the other hand, can only hope that an ‘anybody but Trump’ sentiment takes root in the weeks ahead. Undoubtedly this will happen to some extent, but it may not be enough.

There is no disputing that a second term in office by the profoundly racist and dangerously authoritarian Donald Trump is a grim prospect and that he would be even more reactionary and dangerous than during his first term. However, the war criminal presently in the White House shows very clearly that there is no protection from the threat of the right by hoping that more ‘moderate’ capitalist politicians will come to our rescue. Those presently taking to the streets against Biden may soon be continuing their struggle in the face of a second Trump administration.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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