Trump's NY hush money trial begins and with it, the weirdest campaign ever

Former President Donald Trump arrives at NY Criminal Court Monday morning, April 15, 2024.
Former President Donald Trump arrives at NY Criminal Court Monday morning, April 15, 2024.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Donald Trump did not look chagrined as he prepared to walk into a New York courtroom and become the first former president in American history to be tried after being accused of a crime.

"This is an assault on America," he told reporters gathered in a hallway, calling the charges "nonsense" and "an outrage" and repeating his unfounded assertion that President Joe Biden was behind his prosecution on 34 counts of violating New York State law.

"This is really an attack on a political opponent, that's all it is," Trump said as a police dog barked in the background. "So I'm very honored to be here."

Never before has a former president faced criminal charges. Never before has a presumptive presidential nominee been compelled to spend at least four days a week sitting in a courtroom − and with a gag order limiting his attacks on those involved in his prosecution on social media. And never before has a national candidate taken what would have otherwise been a death blow and embraced it as a political asset.

Of course, Trump already made a scowling mug shot taken at the Fulton County Jail for other criminal charges an iconic image, now plastered on T-shirts and coffee mugs, flags and posters and digital trading cards.

He has been running against Biden more or less continuously since 2020, when they faced off in an election that Trump lost but never conceded. But in some ways the 2024 general election campaign began Monday at 100 Centre Street in lower Manhattan, chronicled by a half-dozen "pool" reporters and a sketch artist sitting on the benches in the 15th-floor courtroom.

With the Republican and Democratic nominations now settled, this trial may be the best chance of upending a contest that is tight as a tick.

The question for voters: Is Trump unfit for the presidency if he is convicted of falsifying business records to cover up hush money he paid to a porn star − all in an attempt to deep-six a political embarrassment during the last campaign?

Or is he the unfair victim of a politically motivated prosecution on charges he denies and deems unimportant?

Oh, yes. It's a legal question, too

Those are the same questions that will face the dozen jurors and six alternates being selected over the next week or so, with consequences more personal for Trump than those in his last two trials.

A federal defamation trial brought by E. Jean Carroll and a civil fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James carried the threat of financial penalties − enormous ones, as it turned out − but not prison time.

In the new case, the People of the State of New York against Donald J. Trump, each of the 34 Class E felonies carries a maximum sentence of four years, although many legal experts find the prospect of an extended incarceration for the former president unfathomable.

Political consequences loom, too.

The allegations, some of them legal and some personal, that have swirled around Trump for years haven't shaken his core support. Even those relating to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol have galvanized his political support and made it politically unwise for his GOP rivals for the nomination to attack him.

Now the most recent national polls averaged by finds a contest that is essentially tied: Trump at 45.6%, Biden at 45.4%.

Could this trial roil a race even though views of both major contenders seem set in concrete?


In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll last month, 44% of those surveyed said they planned to follow Trump's trial in New York, though the effect a conviction could have on their vote seemed small.

Among Trump voters, 84% said they would still vote for him if he was convicted in this trial or others. Among those who would change their vote, 8% would support a third-party candidate, and less than 1% − in other words, just two of the 336 Trump voters surveyed− said they would switch to Biden.

That said, in a very close contest even a small switch in support, or the decision by some voters to stay home, can have a crucial impact.

Campaigning from a basement and the Rose Garden

It's hard to miss the campaign trappings of the trial.

Trump arrived in his signature garb: a blue suit, red tie and white shirt, with an American flag pin on his lapel.

Before he left Trump Tower in the morning, he posted a series of attacks on the social media site Truth Social attacking Justice Juan Merchan as "Crooked," the gag order as "Unconstitutional" and his prosecution as "Election interference."

He blasted out one fundraising email, then and another in his name as he sat in the courtroom. "They're just a DEEP STATE plot from RADICAL Democrats to come after you − and I'm the only thing standing in their way!" he warned.

In previous elections, by choice or necessity, presidential contenders have campaigned in venues other than rallies and speeches and debates.

Eugene V. Debs, nominated by the Socialist Party of America, received close to 1 million votes in 1920 when he campaigned from prison, where he was incarcerated on charges of sedition; he promised to pardon himself if elected. That year's election was won by Warren G. Harding, who campaigned mostly from his front porch, a technique used by other candidates of that era.

Biden used a version of that in 2020, not from his front porch but from his basement in Delaware because of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Gerald Ford and other modern incumbents have run Rose Garden campaigns, staying close to the White House and emphasizing the trappings of incumbency.

But a courtroom campaign?

We have never been here before.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Does Trump hush money make for the weirdest campaign ever?