Guilty verdict fuels Trump’s campaign: ‘Our whole country is being rigged’

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s conviction Thursday makes him the first former president to become a felon — and he will be the first to assert in a presidential campaign that it’s even more reason to elect him again.

That act of campaigning on his criminal conviction began the moment Trump exited the courtroom in Manhattan, turning to the scrum of reporters and speaking of the verdict in terms of a larger war he is engaged in.

“I’m a very innocent man, and it’s OK, I’m fighting for our country. I’m fighting for our constitution. Our whole country is being rigged now,” Trump said, calling the proceedings a “rigged, disgraceful trial.”

A conviction may change little about Trump’s existing, grievance-filled campaign strategy. At rallies and in public remarks for more than the past year, Trump has described sinister, Democratic forces coming after him — and warned his supporters, without evidence, that the powers that be will also come for Americans whose beliefs are similar to his. Trump is the only one who can stop them, he says.

Trump’s guilty verdict, despite having been determined by a jury of average New Yorkers, will only further fuel his claims that he is being targeted through the legal system as a way to prevent him from winning back the White House. President Joe Biden has said little about Trump’s legal woes other than making some indirect comments and jokes about Trump being tied up with trial and sending surrogates to the courthouse on Tuesday, though he is expected to change tactics now that Trump has been convicted.

Shortly after the jury delivered the verdict, Biden’s communications director, Michael Tyler, said in a statement that “today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality. There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.”

Biden’s campaign also posted a campaign fundraising solicitation on social media.

Trump and his team in recent days were already setting expectations ahead of a possible guilty conviction, suggesting that one was likely (“Mother Teresa could not beat these charges,” he said a day prior), but seeking to downplay its significance with voters (“The average working American has already acquitted Donald Trump,” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Trump surrogate, told Fox News outside the courthouse as the jury deliberated Thursday).

But he now will have to embrace his status as a felon — and, as he has long said, a victim of “weaponization of the justice system” and political persecution — as Trump continues with his presidential campaign — including the first televised general election debate in less than a month. Trump has remained ahead of Biden in swing state polling throughout the trial, which he and his campaign have argued is a sign that Americans are not swayed by the prospect of him being convicted.

A campaign video released Thursday morning, featuring dramatic shots of Trump walking, and footage of him at rallies and greeting supporters, flashed a message on screen: “They’re trying to hold him back. It’s not working. TRUMP WON’T BE STOPPED.”

Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba, who is not representing him in the New York case but who has regularly attended court with him, told reporters before the decision that her message to Trump supporters is: “Be patient. Don’t look at the verdicts that we get. Wait.”

“We will go and appeal,” Habba continued. “We will show them what really happened.”

Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, told Fox News’ Jesse Watters during an interview Thursday night that the former president was “very involved” in his legal defense and had previously joked that he wanted to be the litigator. Blanche also decried the case overall.

“This is not fair. This is not what this country should be doing to its political leaders past and present,” he said.

A person with knowledge of the strategy said earlier this week that the Trump campaign, anticipating any outcome, had prepared to campaign on a guilty verdict.

Trump throughout the trial sought to capitalize on his confinement to court by sending out fundraising emails and text messages seemingly narrating his court experience — that he was entering the courtroom for the day, that he had just “stormed out” of court, that he was holding an “emergency press conference” at the end of the day.

There’s no clear evidence that Trump’s conviction will have a drastic effect on the presidential election, and polling surrounding the case and its impact on voters has been limited. Since the trial was not televised, the proceedings remained opaque to those outside the courtroom — which was nearly everyone in America — and coverage of the verdict and the subsequent sentencing and expected appeal could have more of an impact on public opinion.

Polling over the last month and a half has offered mixed information about how closely voters were following the news of the trial — but overall, has shown that Americans see the Manhattan criminal case as less serious than Trump’s other three, which may not go to trial before the November election.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in mid-May found that while 46 percent of respondents believed Trump had done something illegal in the hush-money payment case, 29 percent said it was something unethical but not illegal, and 21 percent said Trump did nothing wrong — the latter two groups amounting to a combined 50 percent.

Those numbers were similar to polling conducted at the start of the trial, showing news reports about the case have only done so much to change public opinion about Trump’s behavior.

Trump will undoubtedly use the conviction to further accuse President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party of political persecution, a line of attack he employed long before the trial even started.

The trial unfolded as Trump has enjoyed a months-long lead over Biden in critical swing state polling.

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