Trump's trial showed the legal system works, but his rhetoric has left scars

Legal experts are worried about Trump's ongoing attacks on the courts.

June 24, 2024, 12:57 PM

Three weeks ago, former President Donald Trump became the first and only ex-president to be convicted of a felony. And while the presumptive Republican nominee has returned to the campaign trail, his ongoing outbursts disparaging the courts are a reminder that this is anything other than a normal election. As he awaits sentencing on the 34 charges he was convicted of in the New York hush money case, Trump has continued to suggest that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he would try to use the legal system to go after his own political enemies if he wins this fall.

Trump's legal issues have continued to split the country. About half of all voters approve of his conviction in the New York hush money trial, according to polling conducted since the verdict, and they're also evenly split on whether the trial was fair, according to a YouGov/The Economist poll from June 2-4. Perhaps unsurprisingly in our highly polarized times, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to think the charges Trump faced were politically motivated in an AP-NORC poll from earlier this month. Though there's some evidence the conviction may have hurt him with independents and shifted his overall chances slightly downward, the state of the presidential race overall seems to remain unchanged at a tie.

So while Trump's conviction hasn't seemingly had any drastic impacts on his (re)electoral prospects yet, it's still unclear how this and the other unprecedented legal challenges he's embroiled in — and his rhetoric surrounding them — will impact either the election or the criminal justice system more broadly. The question isn't going anywhere, as Trump still faces criminal charges in three other cases, and a decision in his case arguing that he has immunity for any of his actions while in office is expected to come down from the Supreme Court next week. With that in mind, 538 turned to legal and political experts to assess where we are in the aftermath of the historic conviction and what challenges lie ahead.

Experts say the New York trial showed the legal system working

When Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office first announced the charges against Trump in the hush money case a little over a year ago, even some progressive observers were dubious about both the case's legal merits and its political implications, with some arguing that its details were "underwhelming" in the face of Trump's other alleged crimes. In fact, reporting has shown that Bragg himself sometimes played a reluctant part in the case given its weighty political implications.

But experts pointed out that bringing the case was actually a sign that the rule of law was working. "If you are going to say that, well, you can't prosecute Donald Trump, because he is a popular political figure with a big platform … then you are actually conceding ... that the fundamental democratic principle that no one is above the law actually isn't true and can't be enacted," said Kristy Parker, special counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan anti-authoritarian group.

Rachel Barkow, a professor at the NYU School of Law, also emphasized the aspects of normalcy in the unusual situation, noting that the charges brought against Trump were relatively common, as is the general practice of elevating misdemeanors to felonies. "The supporters of Trump find it to be a witch hunt against him or particularly political, when in fact … prosecutors do stuff like that all the time," Barkow said. While the bar for bringing charges against a former president should be high, she said, Trump shouldn't have impunity. "At a certain point, the rule of law does depend on bringing charges."

And once the decision to bring charges was made, the trial was "textbook," said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the program in law and public policy at Princeton University. "The judge handled the trial incredibly well, the evidence was thoroughly and well presented, the defendant was extremely well represented, due process was complied with, the jury was able to give the evidence full and fair deliberation," she said. "This looked like just the way you would want the criminal justice system to operate in an ideal circumstance."

The other legal experts I spoke with agreed and pointed to the norms and procedures followed by the prosecution and the judge to ensure that the defendant, former president or not, had a fair trial. "Human beings run the justice system and it is possible that they can do things for improper reasons," said Parker. "But the system itself is designed to root that out and correct for it." She pointed to guidelines her organization has published which include ensuring an open trial observed by the public and the press, the defendant's opportunity to present a defense and for the case to be decided by a jury of the defendant's peers — all of which happened in the New York trial.

"We prosecuted a former president of the United States and the legal system didn't collapse," Pearlstein said. "On the contrary, it behaved incredibly well. We are able, just like every other Western democracy that's faced this issue, to handle prosecuting political leaders. If we weren't able to do that, I would worry profoundly about the fate of the rule of law in this country. So in that sense, it's a wonderful success, a case study, a proof of concept. It's a good thing."

But Trump's rhetoric has already had repercussions for the justice system

That said, the execution of the trial itself isn't the only point of concern when it comes to Trump's relationship to the justice system. Legal experts are worried how Trump's statements about the case, and his broader willingness to attack or undermine the legitimacy of the judicial system, bode ill for future cases, and may have already eroded public faith in the courts. Indeed, Trump has a long history of attacking judicial institutions and officials that's only continued in his recent legal cases, which he has consistently painted as a partisan "witch hunt" against him.

Trump's claims of an unfair trial reverberate through the Republican Party and the right-wing media environment, the experts said, reflecting and amplifying the persistence and effectiveness of his narrative. "Almost the entire Republican Party has gotten in line. … They say things like, 'Oh, this is how he speaks, it's not what he means,' even though there's evidence to suggest that this is exactly what he means," said Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "I think they give permission to voters to say, 'All right, well, it's not going to be as dangerous as I might expect.'"

"Donald Trump, from the minute he was indicted on the first counts, made it clear that his perspective was that there was a two-tiered system of justice, that the jury would not treat him fairly, that the judge was out for him and that the entire criminal justice system is rigged against him," Lawless went on to say. "And so at least for his base, and for a lot of Republican voters, the expectation was that it didn't matter whether he was convicted or not, he was not treated fairly."

So it wasn't too surprising when, after the verdict came down on May 30, many Republican leaders continued to decry the process as a partisan weaponization of the justice system. "Democrats cheered as they convicted the leader of the opposing party on ridiculous charges, predicated on the testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon," said House Speaker Mike Johnson on the social platform X.

Trump's disparagement of the justice system as a political tool, and his threats to weaponize it himself, have long gone hand in hand. "Trump ran, extraordinarily, in 2016 on a campaign of 'lock her up,'" Pearlstein pointed out, referring to Trump and his supporters suggesting that his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. "That was stunning at the time, it was what made so many of us worry about not just this particular candidate, but democracy more broadly, beginning then."

That's one reason why legal experts were concerned that the most recent prosecution of Trump would not only open the door for more of his attacks on the legal system, but that it would further embolden Trump and other Republicans to call for retaliatory charges against Democrats — which could potentially be a step toward the slippery slope to authoritarianism. Indeed, enacting "retribution" on his opponents is something Trump has repeatedly suggested he might do if reelected, and what some Republicans are calling for now.

"Prosecutorial discretion in the wrong hands is a truly dangerous thing," Barkow said, arguing that the country is already "overcriminalized" such that almost anyone could be attacked for some kind of crime. "And now you're talking about the politicization of prosecution — that takes place in other countries that … don't have strong democratic norms. And that's when we end up on that sliding scale to autocracy."

Some of the other legal experts we spoke to were more confident about the checkpoints in place to prevent that. To charge someone with a crime, prosecutors have to convince juries and judges and meet the burden of proof in their cases. And, as a counterpoint to Trump's claims of partisan bias from the courts, Lawless said the fact that President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, has been convicted in his own trial might help bolster faith in the justice system. Despite public approval of the Supreme Court being down, voters still have a lot of faith in the judicial system overall, she said. "People still generally believe in the way that the criminal justice system works, certainly for a billionaire white man," she said.

But one thing all of the experts noted is that Trump hasn't hidden his ambitions to overhaul existing democratic systems and norms. Pearlstein pointed to reporting around conservatives' "Project 2025" presidential transition blueprint, which includes plans to install political loyalists in key government positions — a move experts say would erode some of the guardrails that protect democracy. "If you start mucking with the systems that check the role of employees of the federal government who should be, in effect, impartial … then you disable one of those checks that does make the weaponization of the Department of Justice more likely," Pearlstein said.

There are still more Trump trials to come

No matter how well experts think the hush money trial went, it is only one of several Trump-related challenges the system faces. Polling shows that most Americans view the charges in the three other pending criminal cases against Trump — the Florida case related to mishandling of classified documents, the Georgia election interference case and the federal election interference case related to Jan. 6 — as more serious than the New York case, but it seems unlikely there will be any resolution on those cases before the election. The fact that voters are waiting for those cases to unfold is a problem in and of itself, the experts said.

"In a functioning democracy, [if] a person … in a very public way, worked with numerous other people to stop the certification of a free and fair election, there would have been some sort of accountability mechanism that would have been allowed to play out fully," Parker said. She felt it was "problematic" that voters likely won't get a chance to see the evidence presented at trial and a verdict in many of these cases before they're asked to make a choice in November.

The country's deep political polarization is one of the main reasons for this delay, these experts said — an observation that underscores how legal challenges to the former president have become intrinsically tied to politics. As was evident in the discourse around Trump's first trial, some liberals may be hesitant to target Trump in ways that rally his base to his defense, while some conservatives may be biased towards Trump's innocence.

That hints at some of the problems that have already cropped up in future cases, like the classified documents case in Florida overseen by Judge Aileen Cannon. Cannon is a Trump-appointed judge who legal experts say, unlike Judge Juan Merchan in New York, has deviated from the norm in her handling of Trump's case. Even before the trial began, Cannon appointed a special arbiter to review the classified documents taken from Mar-a-Lago, a move that slowed the federal criminal investigation into those documents and was quickly overturned and criticized by an appeals court. And Cannon's actions and decision-making as the case unfolds have continued to draw criticism from legal observers.

While some have noted Cannon's relative inexperience as one reason for her unexpected decisions, most experts say she's exhibited a clear favoritism toward Trump. Pearlstein says Cannon's actions thus far have seemed calculated and intentional. "If I were her and I were trying to make this take as long as possible … and if I were trying to leave open channels for inappropriate outcomes, this is how I'd be behaving," Pearlstein warned. "She's not behaving normally for a criminal judge. And that's what worries me about this case."

Some have expressed concern that the Supreme Court's long deliberations over Trump's executive immunity case are a similar stalling tactic, and that likely outcomes for a ruling from the court's conservative majority will effectively shield him from further criminal prosecution before the election, even if they don't grant him complete immunity. Beyond that, if Trump wins in November, he's reportedly working to try to shield himself from current and any further prosecution, a change that could fundamentally alter the rule of law.

This has been part of how Trump has operated from the beginning of his candidacy, from "lock her up" to trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Pearlstein said. And the fact that conservatives have largely reacted with indifference or renewed support in the face of Trump's conviction shows just how far he's come in reshaping democratic norms.

"Up to now, people who have sought to lead the executive branch of our federal government … have bought into the idea that our constitutional system of government was a good one," Parker said. "When you have an extremely powerful person and an extremely powerful set of actors acting in unison to tear down the legitimacy of a process … that is going to have an effect."