Trump goes on trial: 5 key questions about how it could affect his campaign

Polls show there are major risks if Trump is convicted. He denies wrongdoing.

April 15, 2024, 10:37 AM

Donald Trump on Monday became the first former president ever to stand trial for alleged criminal wrongdoing -- a historic moment that raises key questions for his 2024 campaign for the White House.

Trump denies wrongdoing in the case, out of New York, which centers around hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential bid, in order to stop Daniels from going public about what she claimed was an affair with him, which he denies.

According to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Trump allegedly engaged in a scheme with his then-lawyer Michael Cohen and others to influence the 2016 election by suppressing negative information about him. Trump is accused of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree.

The case is one of four indictments that Trump faces and is the first to go to trial, putting his legal problems directly before jurors -- and the public.

He has pleaded not guilty in each case and has maintained his competitiveness in the general election: Early national polls show him narrowly ahead or narrowly behind his successor, President Joe Biden.

But the trial could create major political consequences for Trump. Here are five key campaign questions as he heads to court.

How much would a conviction sway voters?

Strategists on both sides of the aisle have forecast that Trump's current legal limbo -- charged but not yet on trial, repeatedly denying the evidence and accusations laid out against him by prosecutors -- won't, on its own, doom his chances of winning back the White House.

Polling appears to bear that out. For example, a New York Times/Siena College survey released on Saturday found that 54% of registered voters said they believed Trump had committed "serious federal crimes," but only 26% said they were paying a lot of attention to the former president's legal struggles.

And while 46% of registered voters in the poll said Trump should be convicted in the New York case, Trump still held a 1-point lead over Biden overall in the survey, 46-45%.

But polls have also indicated that a conviction could be a game-changer for the former president.

PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump walks outside the courtroom on the day of a court hearing on charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star before the 2016 election, New York City, Feb. 15, 2024.
Former President Donald Trump walks outside the courtroom on the day of a court hearing on charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star before the 2016 election, New York City, Feb. 15, 2024.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters

A late-January NBC News national poll of registered voters found that Trump led Biden 47-42% -- but that Biden would have a 45-43% edge if Trump were to be found guilty and convicted of a felony this year.

And a poll from Reuters/Ipsos published on Wednesday found that 60% of registered voters said they would not vote for Trump if he were to be convicted of a felony by a jury.

Even if the dropoff in Trump's support after a hypothetical conviction isn't huge, this year's race is anticipated to be decided based on just tens or hundreds of thousands of votes across a handful of swing states, as in 2016 and 2020, leaving neither candidate with much margin for error.

How will Trump campaign from court?

While his criminal trial in New York will complicate his ability to be in front of voters as a candidate, he's expected to use the courthouse as another stop on the trail.

Trump himself will need to be in court for the entire trial, which will be held every weekday except on Wednesdays, forcing him to balance his time there and on the trail for up to eight weeks, approximately.

"We'll just have to figure it out," he said in February. "I'll be here during the day, and I'll be campaigning during the night."

But the trial will also fix the national news media's attention on the historic proceedings, even as the proceedings themselves won't be broadcast because TV cameras aren't allowed in court.

While attending previous court hearings related to his legal troubles, Trump used that attention to give campaign-like speeches before the cameras -- which he could continue to do essentially as much as he wants (though he remains bound by a gag order that limits some of what he can say related to people connected to the New York trial).

He's also expected to hold events on the same days as his court appearances, his campaign insists, and he will still be free on Wednesdays and weekends, allowing him to hold his favored rallies.

He spoke briefly with reporters before entering court on Monday morning, claiming persecution and saying, "There is no case."

"Not only will we take full advantage of off days on Wednesdays and the weekends, President Trump will be driving his message with both in-person and virtual events on court days," campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said.

However, other Trump sources disputed this.

Sources close to his legal team have said his lawyers will try and convince him not to hold his standard hallway gaggles and press conferences after court given fears over repeated gag order violations and given that he's not allowed to utter a word about prospective jurors -- though sources said the situation is fluid and they are prepared for anything.

Trump is technically already "on notice" from Judge Juan Merchan about violating the gag order related to jury selection, which Merchan wrote in an order earlier this month could lead to Trump losing the "statutory right he might have to access juror names if he engages in conduct that threatens the safety and integrity of the jury or the jury selection process."

But campaign advisers, keenly aware of just how close this election could be, say they are quietly hoping the former president takes the opportunity to speak to the cameras to reinforce their narrative.

"Voters see that President Trump is the strongest candidate to lead our country and nobody fights back harder than he does," Leavitt said in her statement, in part. "President Trump will continue to fight for truth in the courtroom and to share his winning message on the campaign trail."

What remains less clear is whether or not the trial will consume Trump's message on the trail -- or whether he'll balance it with other issues like high inflation and immigration, conflict in the Middle East and more.

PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Schnecksville, PA, April 13, 2024.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Schnecksville, PA, April 13, 2024.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

How does Trump message the case to voters?

Up until now, Trump has been repeating his claims that his legal struggles are the result of political persecution by prosecutors including Bragg, a Democrat.

The former president recently ramped up his rhetoric of victimhood, hyperbolically linking himself to the struggles of famed South African leader Nelson Mandela against apartheid and sharing a supporter's comparison of his legal troubles to how Jesus Christ was martyred by the Romans.

But prosecutors have uniformly rejected allegations of partisanship as baseless, pointing to the evidence in the indictments, which were approved by grand juries.

Responding to the case in New York, Trump has lashed out at the character of Daniels and Cohen, his former attorney-turned-critic, calling both of them "liars." He has previously defended the $130,000 he paid Daniels, with his attorneys describing it as extortion.

Does Biden say anything?

Biden has largely refrained from seizing on the particulars of any of the cases against Trump, seeking to maintain distance between the campaign and the decisions of prosecutors who say politics plays no role in their work.

That is not expected to change with the New York trial, as neither the Democratic National Committee nor the Biden campaign intends to comment on it.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre previously said Biden isn't paying attention to Trump's New York case.

"The president is going to focus on the American people like he does every day. This is not something that is a focus for him," she said in April 2023.

Instead, Biden is set to continue to stress a split screen with his rival, hitting the trail -- where he has emphasized issues like domestic investments, economic growth, health care and abortion while attacking Trump on abortion bans, the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol and more.

Political observers say the new stage of Trump's legal struggles presents Biden with something of a conundrum, though.

Weighing in on the case risks feeding Trump's argument that the cases are politically motivated. Avoiding it, however, robs Biden of the opportunity to discuss the news of the day, which is likely to flood headlines related to the election, while he tries to convince voters he deserves a second term.

How much do the scandalous details stick?

Experts and strategists who spoke with ABC News said the underlying facts of the case -- the payments to Daniels to cover up an alleged affair -- haven't been a breaking point for the electorate, which they attributed to Trump's long history of controversies about his personal life.

Trump also denies the two ever had a relationship.

But District Attorney Bragg will now have the chance to prosecute Trump and present his evidence before the public. Prosecutors are expected to take several weeks to do so, which could directly undermine Trump's denials and the contention that Bragg's case is baseless. It's less clear how long Trump's defense will take to rebut the prosecution's case in court.

Daniels -- who claims her affair with Trump took place in 2006 shortly after the birth of Trump's son Barron with wife Melania Trump -- is herself a potential witness.

With details of the alleged affair and cover-up set to be back in the spotlight, feeding constant news coverage, it raises the question of whether that will stick in voters' minds.

Past politicians from Gary Hart to John Edwards to Mark Sanford to Anthony Weiner -- and more -- have all seen their future political careers upended by allegations of sexual misconduct or extramarital affairs.

In Trump's case, however, Daniels' affair claim has not been confirmed.

More broadly, through his decades as a brash, braggadocious real estate mogul and reality TV star at home in the tabloids, he built a public image resistant to such allegations -- and he maintains his good standing with the GOP base.

He was also narrowly elected president in 2016 shortly after the release of a 2005 tape from behind the scenes of "Access Hollywood" in which he boasted about grabbing and kissing women without consent, which he defended as "locker room banter."

More recently, he was found liable in a civil case for sexually assaulting and defaming former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll after she sued him. He continues to deny her account and is appealing.

ABC News' Gabriella Abdul-Hakim, Peter Charalambous, Katherine Faulders, Aaron Katersky, Soo Rin Kim, Oren Oppenheim, Olivia Rubin, John Santucci and Rachel Scott contributed to this report.