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A verdict against Trump may not hurt his base — but what about other supporters?

A verdict against Donald Trump in a civil sexual assault case is just part of Trump’s legal baggage as the former U.S. president campaigns to be the Republican presidential nominee for 2024, raising questions of how it might impact his chances in the general election. 

CNN audience laughed at Trump’s insults about a woman he was found to have sexually assaulted.

A person standing on a stage with a backdrop behind them claps their hands.

A day after a New York jury found that Donald Trump had sexually abused magazine writer E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s and later defamed her, an audience of mostly Trump supporters at a CNN town hall greeted the former U.S. president with enthusiastic applause. Some gave him a standing ovation.

When the topic of the civil case was raised Wednesday night by CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins and Trump responded with jokes and insults about Carroll, many in the audience laughed.

The verdict in the civil case, for which Trump filed a notice of appeal on Thursday, is just part of his legal baggage as he campaigns to be the Republican presidential nominee for 2024, raising questions of how, at the very least, it might impact his chances in the general election.

“Can enough of these indictments against a former president … become this collective sort of baggage? Maybe,” Gunner Ramer, political director of the Republican Accountabilty PAC, a group of Republicans and conservatives seeking to ensure Trump isn’t the party’s presidential nominee, said in an interview.

“Or is it that these these indictments are so spread apart, his idea of victimhood is just sprinkled in every so often, it creates this short-term rally around Trump constantly?”

The reaction to the verdict among the Trump-friendly crowd at the CNN town hall suggested that the civil trial, and the jury’s verdict, may have little impact on supporters as he campaigns to become the Republican presidential nominee. Indeed, some Republican observers say it may boost his support among those who believe, like Trump, that he’s the victim of a prosecutorial witch hunt.

A person smiles as they walk out of a building with several other people.

“Oh, the hardcore base will of course interpret it that way. The real question is what effect it has beyond the hardcore base,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres.

Ayres sees Republicans split into three factions: around 10 per cent “never Trump,” 30 per cent “always Trump” and the rest “maybe Trump.”

“There is an ‘always Trump’ faction that will walk through a wall of flame for him and for whom this verdict will, if anything, strengthen their support for him,” he said. “The women in Trump’s hardcore base will simply dismiss the accuser as a liar and not pay much attention.”

Ramer said his group’s research has revealed a small rally of support for Trump at times when he’s viewed by some Republicans as besieged by the legal establishment.

That includes, Ramer said, the indictment by a Manhattan grand jury on charges relating to hush money payments made in 2016 to women who alleged extramarital affairs, as well as the FBI raid on his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida over his handling of classified documents and potential obstruction of justice.

“[The verdict] is another thing for Republican primary voters to look at and brand Donald Trump once again as this person that is, for them, constantly being attacked, this sense of victimhood,” Ramer said.

Recent polls suggest Trump’s support has only risen among Republican supporters, including women. A poll conducted in April by Fox News found that Trump leads his potential and confirmed rivals for the presidential nomination with 53 per cent support, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 21 per cent, Trump’s former vice-president Mike Pence at six per cent and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley at four per cent.

And those results were roughly the same for men and women.

Trump brushes off sex abuse verdict in CNN town hall

After years of calling CNN ‘fake news,’ Donald Trump held a campaign town hall on the network. It came just days after a jury found that Trump, the current frontrunner in the Republican primary race, sexually abused and defamed columnist E. Jean Carroll.

Meanwhile, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll also found Trump leading other Republicans, and, more dire for U.S. President Joe Biden, that he would lose to Trump, 49 per cent to 42 per cent.

Axios co-founder Mike Allen noted in his morning newsletter following Trump’s sex assault verdict that “Trump’s grip over Republicans seemsstronger than ever — and chances of beating President Biden are as high as ever.”

“Call it the Trump Law of Inverse Reactions: Everything that would seem to hurt him only makes him stronger,” he wrote.

However, the verdict did spark some Republican politicians to question how viable it makes Trump in a general election.

‘It creates a concern’

“Of course it creates a concern. How could it not create a concern? If what the woman says … he’s been found to be civilly liable, how could it do anything else but create a concern?” Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy told reporters on Wednesday when asked about the verdict.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said while some believe that prosecutors “are out to get” Trump, “people are going to have to decide whether … they want to deal with all the drama that’s going to surround him.”

A couple of his potential nominee opponents also condemned Trump.

“The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behaviour of Donald Trump,” said former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who has officially declared his candidacy.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who may also make a bid, rejected Trump’s cries of victimhood.

“How many coincidences are we going to have here with Donald Trump?” Christie said.

“He just has random people he’s never met before who are able to convince a jury that he sexually abused them? I mean, this guy, it’s one person after another,” he said.

A person sits with their lawyers at a table during a hearing.

But most potential and declared presidential candidates were silent about the verdict. Haley, when asked about it on the conservative talk show The Hugh Hewitt Show, refused to comment, saying: “I’m not going to get into that. That’s something for Trump to respond to.”

Meanwhile, other Republicans defended the former president.

“When it comes to Donald Trump, the New York legal system is off the rails,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham

‘Vote for him twice’

“It makes me want to vote for him twice,” Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville told HuffPost when asked about the verdict. “They’re going to do anything they can to keep him from winning. It ain’t gonna work … people are gonna see through the lines; a New York jury, he had no chance.”

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said the verdict plays into the message Trump’s had for many years that he’s being targeted unfairly. With most candidates involved in these kind of controversies, there’s a huge outcry, the person feels shame, starts hiding, even potentially drops out, he said.

“But Trump doesn’t feel shame. And I think part of that is he really only believes what he wants to believe. So in his mind, he believes he did nothing wrong. And this is a witch hunt. So he doesn’t believe there’s anything to be ashamed of,” Mackowiak said.

Supporters of Trump stand outside his Mar-a-Lago home after Trump said that FBI agents raided it, in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 8.

“One of the things he has done very effectively, and I think he’s unique in this way, is that he takes things that should be disqualifying or significantly damaging and he turns them around and makes himself victim.”

But, Mackowiak said, when the primary debates begin, candidates will start drawing distinctions and contrasts.

“The one thing I wonder about is, will Republican primary voters become fatigued over the legal entanglements and the chaos surrounding Trump?”

Among Trump’s legal entanglements, however, the sexual assault verdict may play a more significant role in helping primary voters decide whether they want to support him.

Ryan Goodman, a professor at the New York University school of law, and Norma Eisen, who was co-counsel for the House judiciary committee on Trump’s first impeachment trial, co-wrote an article making the point that research shows more voters find sexual misconduct a disqualifying feature for holding office.

“Some Republican primary voters may also look over the horizon at how voters in the general election will react to his having been proven to have committed sexual assault and accordingly wish to select a more competitive nominee for their party,” they wrote in Just Security, an online forum for analysis of security, democracy, foreign policy and rights.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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