A bit of good news for Trump is still dwarfed by his mounting legal woes

His trial starting on April 15 could determine the outcome of November's presidential election

Former US President Donald Trump in New York City, on March 25, after his court hearing to determine the date of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments. AFP
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The 2024 US presidential campaign, already among the strangest ever, has begun to truly unfurl its ineffable weirdness as Donald Trump is buffeted between sporadic campaigning and competing court decisions. Mr Biden remains the conventional candidate of a conventional party. Mr Trump and his Republicans, by contrast, are dispensing with virtually all political norms, expectations and traditions.

The Republican Party appears to have become a de jure as well as de facto Trump personal fiefdom. Desperate for money amid mounting fines, judgments and legal bills, he has installed his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as co-chair of the Republican National Committee which controls party affairs and finances.

When she was initially proposed, RNC leaders insisted that everything would remain entirely aboveboard, and Party funds would only be used for Republican campaigns and not Trump family legal bills. However, Ms Trump rushed to contradict them, insisting that Republican voters would be delighted to have their political donations used to bail out their adored chieftain.

Recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, which oversees political activities and spending, confirm that Mr Trump's organisations like Save America and the Trump 47 Committee will have first dibs on future incoming RNC money through a "joint fundraising agreement". Such groups allow themselves to pay any of Mr Trump's personal expenses, including legal costs, so RNC fundraising now feeds directly into a virtual slush fund for the former president.

This reprehensible absurdity builds on the 2020 embarrassment of the Republican Party forgoing a normal election manifesto to simply declare that it supports whatever Mr Trump wants at any given moment. The scandalous new arrangement means that normative RNC activities aimed at helping Republican candidates across the country get elected will only be funded after Mr Trump skims off the cream for himself. Yet there's a deafening silence and nary a word of complaint from Republican leaders and activists.

Key RNC staff in the political, data and all-important communication departments have been purged and prospective recruits quizzed on whether the 2020 election was "stolen," meaning ideological commitment to Mr Trump's most brazen lie is now, literally, part of their job descriptions. But this transformation of the GOP into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mr Trump's family business, the Trump Organisation, could well result in underfunded Republican candidates losing otherwise winnable seats in Congress in November. Republicans also appear to be repeating the 2022 midterms blunder, as Mr Trump's preferred but probably unelectable nominees push aside more plausible candidates, as just happened in Ohio. A once near-certain Republican Senate takeover is increasingly doubtful because of his preference for the most unctuous sycophants over competent politicians.

This is all unfolding as the Trump campaign and RNC coffers are lagging far behind Democratic fundraising that has allowed Mr Biden to already begin running general election television advertisements.

Democrats scored yet another stunning upset, flipping a House seat in Alabama, of all places, with a massive 25-point victory in a county Mr Biden lost by 25 points in 2020, in a special election that became centred on reproductive freedom for women. That clearly remains a massive weapon for liberals even in the most unlikely districts and states.

Mr Trump did get some good news on Monday as an appellate court predictably reduced the amount he must raise to back his appeal against the $454 million judgment against him for systematic business fraud to a “mere” $175 million. But they haven’t yet reduced the $454 million judgment. And New York State attorneys must be quietly delighted to be assured of getting at least $175 million without having to chase down his assets.

The judge on Tuesday issued a gag order limiting what Trump can publicly say as long as these proceedings continue

But this win-win was more than offset by another brutal day in the hush money criminal case. Mr Trump's stalling tactics collapsed as Judge Juan M Merchan scheduled the trial for April 15. The judge became increasingly irate with Mr Trump's attorneys as they failed to support their accusations of prosecutorial, and implicitly his own, misconduct. “You are literally accusing the Manhattan DA’s office and the people assigned to this case of prosecutorial misconduct and trying to make me complicit in it,” Judge Merchan thundered.

Even worse for Mr Trump, who angrily condemned the whole process in statements immediately involving the Monday hearing, the judge on Tuesday issued a gag order limiting what Mr Trump can publicly say as long as these proceedings continue. Prosecutors requested the order by alleging the former president's remarks have been "threatening, inflammatory, denigrating" to those doing their civil duty rather than other public figures.

Mr Trump and his subordinates will not be allowed to make public comments regarding prospective witnesses, jurors, court staff and prosecutors, or their relatives. This follows the former president’s harsh public attacks on a key witness in the $454 million civil fraud case and previous statements that were widely viewed as attempts to intimidate potential witnesses or their relatives.

This ruling is a severe blow to Mr Trump's plans to use the trial, which will not be televised, to promote the narrative that he and his supporters – including felons convicted of violent crimes during the January 6 insurrection – are being unjustly persecuted by Democrats and a fictitious "deep state”.

He will still be able to complain in broad terms about being treated "very unfairly" and insist that "such a thing has never happened" – because, he will not mention, no other former president has ever been accused of buying silence from alleged former paramours, including an adult film actress – and that it all constitutes intolerable "election interference." This final point is absolutely correct. The trial is indeed about election interference – his.

The prosecution's central assertion that the payoffs, which came long after the alleged affairs ended, were only made because Mr Trump was running for president in 2016, and to protect his election chances, not his family’s feelings. Therefore, the surreptitious hush money payments constituted undisclosed and unlawful campaign contributions.

His former attorney and self-described "fixer" Michael Cohen, who will be a prosecution star witness in the upcoming trial, was sentenced in 2018 to three years in prison, largely on the basis of these payments that he allegedly (and obviously) made on Mr Trump's behalf.

The election interference is that because of these unlawful payments, the public never learnt about allegations by the adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, and a former Playboy model, Karen McDougall, that both had extramarital affairs with Mr Trump.

It's unclear if that information would have made any difference in 2026. But by 2024, a ruinous cult of personality has become so entrenched that many Republicans will allow him literally anything. That may not impress the swing voters who will decide the next election, especially if the Republican candidate becomes a convicted felon.

The April 15 trial will take about six weeks. A felony conviction should initiate an unprecedented political implosion, though that's dishearteningly unlikely. Nonetheless, it could prove to be a dramatic election game-changer.

Published: March 28, 2024, 4:00 AM