Realignments in the battle for the White House

Trump retains the support of his base even after conviction, though it’s not enough to win him the US presidency. Meanwhile, Biden is trying to energise his own
For representational purposes
For representational purposesExpress Illustrations | Sourav Roy

Call it chance, fate or circumstance, Donald Trump had all three in his favour at the disreputable moment when he became the first president of the United States to be convicted of a crime. A 34-times convicted felon! The precise moment of Trump’s “guilty” verdict is lost to America’s electors who must decide by November if they are ready to make a criminal—and possibly a prisoner—their next president. That historic moment is lost to the world too.

No public record exists of how Trump reacted to the verdict of 12 New York jurors who pronounced him culpable of felonies in their state. There was a veritable army of reporters who have been covering the former president’s trial for seven weeks. In fact, there were too many of them to fit into the Manhattan courtroom. The overflow of reporters had to be accommodated in an adjoining room with a closed-circuit video feed of the trial.

However, at the exact moment Trump was pronounced “guilty” on the first of the 34 counts against him, the video feed lost its signal. Reporters who would have captured that moment on their mobile phones and cameras were frustrated and left to stare at blank screens. The few members of the press for whom there was place in the trial room were seated behind the defendant and his team of lawyers. So, they too could not see how Trump reacted to the first “guilty” verdict. By the time the video feed for reporters resumed, Trump had regained his composure, if indeed he had lost it at all. We will never know.

Trump is a rich man in his own right. He amassed power and influence over time as a public figure, culminating in being president of the most formidable nation in the world. Was there any misfeasance in the way the potentially historic video feed was interrupted at its most critical minutes? No one knows. But it suits Trump that American voters will never witness that moment. It could have influenced the November election outcome to some extent by way of impressions on voters. The court will have its own record of it, but that is not for the public to see. So, it will remain a mystery forever. 

Trump’s unfavourable ratings among Americans who plan to vote in the presidential election have increased since his guilty verdict. In the 10 opinion polls that were conducted almost a week after the verdict, Trump received 50 percent approval only in one poll, according to a detailed listing of those polls by Real Clear Politics (RCP), a respected election website which minutely tracks such polls. In some of these polls, voters’ disapproval of Trump stood between 53 and 59 percent. In RCP’s average of these 10 polls, the decline in support for Trump between the jurors’ unanimous decision on the case and a week afterwards was 11.2 percent.

Overall, Trump’s base remains with him. Even if he is imprisoned, this is unlikely to change. But that support, constantly around 38 percent, is not enough to get him into the White House in January—unless his rival Joe Biden’s supporters choose to abstain in large numbers in swing states and in Democratic-leaning regions. Such a possibility explains the ongoing verbal somersaults in New York by President Biden’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in the run-up to, during the debate and after the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution on a ceasefire in Gaza.

The US ambassador was a career diplomat who has been called back from retirement by Biden and is now a political appointee. Her real targets in promoting the ceasefire proposal and the UN resolution are liberal voters in the US. Biden is desperately trying to convince a sizeable pro-Palestinian domestic opinion that he is not a closet Zionist. 

Meanwhile, in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin appears to have concluded that Trump is on course to be the next US president. He was the only foreign leader to criticise the Manhattan court verdict against Trump. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said a day after the verdict that the Trump trial amounted to “attempts by the current authorities to eliminate political rivals by any means”. At one point in the Trump saga when the number of charges against him in various criminal cases crossed the milestone of 90, Putin had said that those cases were “the persecution of a political rival for political reasons”. 

In the 2016 election, which brought Trump to power, Russia was accused of having manipulated the poll process to the advantage of the successful, newbie Republican candidate. The Trump campaign maintained allegedly illegal contacts with the Russian state, including with the then Russian Ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak. Those secret contacts took a heavy toll on the Trump presidency when they tumbled out of the closet. Among their major political casualties was Trump’s first National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, who lasted just 22 days. He was forced to resign for having lied about his conversations with Kislyak. Trump was never personally exonerated on the issue of collusion with the Russians. The legal conclusion was that there was simply not enough evidence to pursue any charges against the 45th president. 

A week after the pro-Trump pronouncements following the former president’s conviction, Putin appeared to walk back on some of his assertions. His motive in doing so was probably to ensure that Trump’s apparent advantages in the ongoing presidential campaign are not damaged by impressions of support from the Kremlin. In a conversation with foreign editors at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin did some damage control: “We have never had any special ties with Mr Trump. The fact remains that as president he started imposing massive sanctions on Russia.” He said nothing will change in Russia-US relations after the November elections.

But he made an important observation about what it will be like under a presumptive Trump presidency: “They are interested in the greatness of the US, which is fighting not for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, but for its own greatness.” Make America Great Again or MAGA is still Trump’s clarion call. Such empty posturing suits Putin. And it suits Trump, of course, should he become president again.

K P Nayar

Strategic Analyst 

(Views are personal)


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