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How Trump's conviction is already rewriting American history

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A single word, spoken 34 times in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday afternoon, changed American history.

“Guilty.”

That was the conclusion reached by a 12-member New York jury that found former President Donald Trump guilty on all 34 counts of falsifying business records to commit or conceal another crime. The criminal case centered on the allegation that he tried to cover up a $130,000 hush money payment to a porn actress so that his prospects in the 2016 presidential election would not be damaged.

Trump is the first former U.S. president to be convicted of a crime. He is also the first person convicted of a serious crime who is on track to become a major party's presidential nominee. Experts told USA TODAY the event is a triumph for the rule of law – at least for now – regardless of whether it affects the outcome of the next election.

This is not the first time Trump has made history. He was the first president with no government or military experience, the first president to refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and the first president to be impeached twice. This latest first will forever shape his legacy.

While political scientists and historians disagreed on whether the ruling would have a measurable impact on the 2024 presidential election, they agreed on one immutable fact: The ruling will rewrite the history books.

The most important finding?

“In a nation governed by law, not by men, no one is above the rule of law,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University. “Not even a president.”

No moment like this

Other former U.S. presidents have been embroiled in high-profile legal problems, trials and congressional investigations stemming from political scandal. Trump's hush money case in New York has been compared to the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon's presidency and to the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton in 1998 during his second term.

But Susan Liebell, a political scientist at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said those events are not comparable to Trump's 34 felony convictions because neither Nixon nor Clinton was convicted of a crime. And Liebell said she is “deeply suspicious” of anyone who claims, based on those earlier examples, that they know what impact the New York ruling will have on American politics.

“No American president has ever been convicted in a criminal trial,” Liebell said. “There are no historical precedents.”

Unlike Trump, Nixon was never brought to trial. His successor, Gerald Ford, preemptively pardoned him before he could be prosecuted for his role in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and subsequent cover-up. Nixon resigned from office in 1974, two years into his second term, as debate in Congress over his impeachment grew, and the Republican president never again ran for public office.

Trump, on the other hand, has served just one term in the White House and is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – and he has indicated no plans to abandon his recent candidacy as a result of Thursday's verdict. Trump remained defiant and unrepentant throughout the trial, saying he “did nothing wrong.”

Jeffrey Engel, director of presidential history projects at Southern Methodist University, argues that “Nixon is not necessarily the historian's typical representative when it comes to examples of outstanding presidential behavior,” but the former president “knew that the job and the country were bigger than himself.”

“Donald Trump is not doing that yet,” Engel said.

Engel and Shannon O'Brien, a professor and self-described “presidential nerd” at the University of Texas at Austin, also rejected comparisons to Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial in the House of Representatives, which she said lied to investigators and obstructed justice in connection with a sexual affair with intern Monica Lewinsky..

Although Trump and Clinton's cases both “involved sexual issues,” O'Brien said, “that's about where the close comparison ends.”

The Senate acquitted Clinton after his impeachment trial, and the Justice Department did not pursue the Democrat with a federal criminal case because it dated back to Nixon's time and sitting presidents cannot be charged with crimes while in office. Clinton also reached an agreement with the Justice Department on his last full day in the White House to avoid prosecution after his term in a similar matter. In exchange, he paid a fine, was disbarred for five years, and publicly admitted to unprofessional conduct.

By comparison, Trump was found guilty on 34 counts by a 12-member jury on Thursday. He also faces criminal charges in three other jurisdictions – two federal cases and one state case in Georgia – related to allegations that he attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election he lost, kept classified materials in his possession after leaving the White House and then obstructed the investigation into the matter. The former president has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

President Clinton's career as an elected official ended after his two terms in the White House, but Engel said the Democratic president's scandals undermined then-Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign, which ended in a narrow loss to George W. Bush.

“If Trump loses, we will say the lesson we learned from Clinton and all other presidents is that there are places where voters will not support a candidate,” Engel said. “Right now, the line is a felony conviction. That line may well shift by November.”

A constitutional victory

Historians have called the Trump verdict a victory for some of the country's most respected legal principles, most notably the phrase “equal justice under the law,” which is engraved on the top of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

Engel argued that “the men who wrote the Constitution would be pleased” that the political system they designed remained intact. Instead, he argued, a former commander in chief would be treated in the justice system, as intended, just like any other American citizen.

A grand jury in New York found last year that there was enough evidence to indict Trump for the hush money payments. After hearing this evidence over the past six weeks in a Manhattan courtroom, the 12-member jury of Trump's colleagues found the former president guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“He was convicted not by President Biden or his political enemies, but unanimously and quickly by a jury of 12 ordinary Americans,” said Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University.

However, Engel and Lichtman expressed concern that Trump's response to the verdict could undermine confidence in the U.S. institutions that made the former president's trial possible.

“They will say New Yorkers are too biased to be fair; that a jury can be persuaded by a ruthless prosecutor or a maniacal judge; that the entire process was politically motivated,” Engel said of Trump and his allies.

Indeed, minutes after the jury read its decision, Trump called his New York verdict a “disgrace” and vowed to challenge his capital felony convictions. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson similarly called the case a “weaponization of our justice system” by Democrats to prevent Trump from becoming president again.

O'Brien argued that Trump and his supporters were making unfounded allegations of bias against the New York courts because acknowledging the legitimacy of those allegations would harm their side's political prospects.

“He can't respect a system that holds him accountable,” O'Brien said. “He has to tear it down because he has no other options left.”

An uncertain future

Shortly after the trial concluded on Thursday, Trump argued that the “true verdict” on his innocence would be made on Election Day..

The latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows Trump and President Joe Biden in a neck-and-neck race, with Trump A marginal lead.

The experts who responded to USA TODAY were divided on how Trump's conviction will affect his chances of winning. They noted that Trump's campaign is expected to use the verdict to drum up support and donations among his voting base. But what is less known is how it will affect swing voters.

“We have no idea how voters will react,” Liebell said. “The question is how it will affect independent voters and Republicans who may agree with conservative policies but have concerns about corruption and integrity.”

She pointed to an April Ipsos poll that found that about 40 percent of Republicans and two-thirds of independents considered the hush money allegations serious. Of those who said they would vote for Trump if the election were held at that time, 13 percent said they would not vote for him if he were convicted of a crime by a jury. Another 25 percent said they would not support him if he were serving a prison sentence at the time of the election.

Given the close results in the presidential election, Lichtman said a small surplus of moderate Trump voters could be enough to reduce the Republicans' chances of victory.

Litchman has correctly predicted the winner of most presidential elections since 1984, with the exception of the 2000 race. Although he has not yet made a final prediction this year, he said “a lot would have to go wrong for Biden to lose re-election.”