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Larry Donnelly In spite of Donald Trump's disastrous week, he still appears unsinkable

Our columnist looks at the turbulent week for the former US president and asks if his reputation is truly damaged this time.

LAST UPDATE | 12 May 2023

“YOU’RE A NASTY person, I’ll tell ya.” This was Donald Trump’s retort to the moderator, Kaitlan Collins, during the CNN Town Hall meeting at St Anselm’s College in New Hampshire.

Collins was prodding the 45th President of the United States to explain his taking of reams of classified documents from the White House to his residence at the Mar-a-Lago Club and subsequent refusal to return them to the authorities.

In the days prior to the Town Hall, many on the left attacked the cable news network for “platforming” the man who countless millions loathe deeply. There is no doubt that its executives knew this spectacle would attract a massive viewership. On the other hand, the polls reveal that Trump is the clear frontrunner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

‘Serious contenders’

CNN has pledged to host a series of these Town Hall meetings with serious contenders for the Oval Office between now and the election. As such, on what conceivable grounds – besides not liking him or what he might say – could CNN deny Trump the forum it will be granting to his trailing competitors? None, in my estimation.

Where the operation did go drastically wrong, however, was with the composition of the in-person audience. It felt like Collins was a one-woman band doing battle with a loyal army of soldiers with their beloved general playing to the troops. This considerably distorted the broader perception of their exchanges. Hence, it was a great night for Trump; even Democratic partisans have privately conceded that it was a decent outing for him.

There should have been either no studio audience or a carefully assembled, bi-partisan crowd.

If he wasn’t surrounded by devotees, Trump’s repeated lies – about January 6th, the 2020 election results and plenty more – as well as his preposterous distortions of reality – the declaration that he alone could end Russia’s war on Ukraine within 24 hours may have been the most far-fetched – would have generated stony silence or a mixed reaction, not frenzied applause. Instead, the ultimate showman played to the gallery for all that it was worth.

And he needed a solid performance, badly. Regardless of his attempts to disparage E Jean Carroll, her lawyer, the judge and the jury in the case against him, the verdict for her and the $5 million award that comes with it is undeniably significant. He has been found liable for sexual abuse and defamation.

This is objectively appalling. It brings us Americans, once again, into uncharted waters with respect to how we think of our sacred civic institutions and the men and women who are privileged to occupy positions of power within them. There have certainly been other low points, but no previous president has been adjudicated to be so apparently devoid of moral fibre that he would grope a woman.

Could he do it, again?

Trump’s acolytes will protest that he could not get a fair trial in heavily Democratic Manhattan, that the judge is a leftist and that Carroll made up the entire incident. Yet their suppositions cannot erase the truth that, in a court of law where he had the full opportunity to defend himself and capable, costly attorneys acting on his behalf, his accuser prevailed.

But as the legal clouds swirling around him have increased and darkened, it is equally true that Trump’s chances of becoming the Republican Party’s standard-bearer have simultaneously improved.

In fact, Donald Trump was actually behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the polls in early voting in New Hampshire at the start of 2023. Recent opinion surveys indicate that he currently has a commanding lead over the 44-year-old he calls “DeSanctimonious” to the laughter of his die-hard followers.

In the Real Clear Politics aggregation of polling data, Trump’s margin is an astounding 31.3%. He sits at 53.5%; DeSantis has the support of 22.2%; the rest of the announced and putative aspirants are mired in the single digits. This is a remarkable, perhaps insurmountable advantage.

The crucial question then: Is there anything that can change the game in the Republican primary? Legal travails, and what could arise from them, seem to be of no consequence. That may be put to the test, though, in the context of special counsel Jack Smith’s two-pronged investigation into Trump’s possession of classified documents and his behaviour on January 6th. Still, my bet is that any adverse findings will not derail his quest.

Shadow of January 6th

At the moment, the only small chink in Trump’s GOP armour appears to be his obsession with the 2020 election and his fantastical belief that he was robbed by Joe Biden and the Democrats. Many at his rallies have suggested that they are sick of hearing about it. The consensus of a focus group of Trump backers who attended the CNN Town Hall was the same.

Naturally, their sentiments won’t deter him from asserting that he was the victim of a grand conspiracy. They are unlikely to be sufficiently put off by his ramblings to jump ship. DeSantis, nonetheless, could benefit by focusing on what lies ahead, not dwelling on the past.

That said, while the youthful, avowedly “anti-woke” Floridian definitely has a future in national conservative politics, his path to becoming his party’s nominee this time around is getting more difficult to map by the day.

His being chosen is not impossible, but it’s highly improbable.

So at the close of a week in which – notwithstanding how oblivious he may be to the gravity of it – Donald Trump suffered the humiliation of being held to account for sexual abuse and defamation, he emerges stronger than ever within Republican circles.

The problem for him is that the right-wing grassroots don’t determine who the next POTUS will be. Swing voters in battleground states do. Affluent, white, suburban women constitute a key component of that cohort. Trump has to have a lot of them in his corner to pull off what would be a big upset.

And I can’t imagine that those whose votes are up for grabs will have been persuaded by the unanimous decision of a jury that he, a self-proclaimed star, grabbed and degraded E Jean Carroll, someone they can readily identify with, in a department store dressing room.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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