Opinion: The guilty verdict only makes Donald Trump stronger

They finally got him.

Not on Russia collusion. Ukraine phone calls. Jan. 6 riots. Classified documents. Or mean tweets.

They finally got Donald Trump, after everything, on filing the wrong financial sex-story coverup paperwork.

Who but Donald Trump could even be indicted for such a thing? As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said a few days ago: “I doubt the New York indictment would’ve been brought against a defendant whose name was not Donald Trump.”

It was jarring to hear my CNN colleague Jake Tapper say “guilty” 34 straight times, as the verdicts rolled in Thursday afternoon. A historic moment that further divided an already divided nation.

And it was equally jarring to see text after text pop up on my phone from decidedly non-MAGA Republicans, but also not Never Trumpers, all sounding the same note: I don’t like this man, and now I think I have to vote for him.

Lest you think that’s just anecdotal or a sign that Scott has weird friends, the Trump campaign reported a deluge of online contributions in the minutes following the verdict crashed their system.

The polling indicates the guilty verdict won’t make much of a difference to how most Americans vote. But Republicans are madder than wet hens that the party’s nominee for president — and, according to the polls, likely the next president of the United States — was indicted for 34 felonies that few can fully explain, in a very Democratic jurisdiction.

Basically, the prosecution argued that Hillary Clinton might have won if Trump hadn’t paid Stormy Daniels for her silence, and so you must convict him for covering up what amounts to a campaign finance violation that he was never charged with or convicted of in the first place. The Department of Justice and Federal Election Commission declined to pursue this novel theory, but it found a home in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

It sounds crazy just typing it. Having never stuck the landing on “Russia stole the election” in 2016, Democrats have moved on to this rationalization of Hillary Clinton’s loss being caused by Trump paying for the silence of a porn star he allegedly had sex with in 2006. (Trump maintains it didn’t happen; Daniels says it did.)

The consensus in my circle is that this will backfire massively, as Republicans get energized. Even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, no Trump fan himself, tweeted: “These charges never should have been brought in the first place. I expect the conviction to be overturned on appeal.”

I’m watching two groups of voters in the polling aftermath — senior citizens and what we in the politics business call “low info flow” voters who consume very little news other than fleeting headlines. Seniors still remember “the before times,” when presidents weren’t spending all their time in courtrooms, and low info voters may never know much beyond that Trump is now a convicted felon.

Biden has strength with older white voters, while Trump does better with the disengaged types. If either group moves against Trump, it could cause a polling bump for Biden. I’m not betting on it, but if I were in the Trump command center, those are the folks I’d be tracking very closely for the next few weeks.

The guilty verdict kicks off a consequential June for what had become a sleepy campaign. Biden has been stuck in the mud for months, languishing at around a 38% approval rating (historically low), and trailing Trump in national and swing state polls. Voters remain angry with Biden over inflation and immigration. His job approval hasn’t been above water since August of 2021, after the disastrous, chaotic and deadly pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

At the end of June, Biden and Trump will debate in Atlanta, with perhaps an unwanted party crasher on stage in the form of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Step 1 to revive his flailing campaign was for Biden to see Trump convicted. Step 2 is for Biden to win the June 27 debate.

As of June 1, Trump is winning. What will the story be on July 1? What if, after a Trump conviction and a debate, Biden hasn’t moved in the polls in a month’s time?

If you think the Democrats are in panic mode today (which Politico reported just this week), brace yourself for what comes next — prominent members of the party wondering aloud about replacing Biden on the ticket if he can’t move ahead of a convicted felon.

For Trump, the message is clear: The only verdict that matters will come from the American people on Nov. 5. And he’ll take the boost he’s sure to get in the wake of the verdict, just as he has following his previous indictments and legal milestones.

Scott Jennings is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a senior CNN political commentator. @ScottJenningsKY

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