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Opinion | America isn't ready for a Trump trial verdict

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It feels surreal to be here. More than three years after he begrudgingly left office, after numerous investigations into his behavior and after more than a month in a New York City courtroom, former President Donald Trump will soon reach the end of a criminal trial. All that's left are summations from the prosecution and defense, and then 12 New Yorkers will be given their instructions and sent to make one of the most monumental decisions in the history of our country.

We have no way of knowing how long jurors will deliberate. Reporters and legal analysts have scoured jurors' expressions and gestures, but even so, it's impossible to know the initial thoughts and feelings each person will take into the jury room and how those thoughts and feelings might change if challenged. What I sense, though, is that whatever happens, America is in no way ready for the new chapter that a verdict — or lack thereof — in Trump's case will usher in.

Once the foreperson has announced the jury's decision, any prior assumptions about the 2024 presidential race will need to be recalculated.

There are at least three likely options that await us on the other side of deliberations. Trump could be convicted of falsifying business documents to cover up hush money payments, made in the interest of affecting the 2016 presidential election's outcome. The jury could conclude the prosecution didn't make its case and fully acquit him. Or the jury could report that they're deadlocked, causing Judge Juan Merchan to declare a mistrial.

Assuming there is a verdict, once the foreperson has announced the jury's decision, any prior assumptions about the 2024 presidential race will need to be recalculated. Polls taken since Trump was first indicted have only been able to ask respondents to consider hypotheticals. A survey conducted in March by Politico Magazine and Ipsos found that a conviction could cost Trump just over a third of independents in the fall. Likewise, a February poll from NBC News showed a conviction in the New York trial taking a major chunk of Trump's support from independents and prompting a major swing from 18- to 34-year-olds to support President Joe Biden over Trump. And an ABC News/Ipsos survey conducted in late April found that 20% of Trump supporters polled would "either reconsider their support (16%) or withdraw it (4%)" if he's convicted.

We are now finally moving away from possibility to hard and fast reality, which may look very different than the predictions based on polling. And encouraging as those statistics may have been for Democrats, they still left unanswered some important questions. None of the polls above asked voters how an acquittal would affect their support for the former president, something that remains a possibility. Also, there's no guarantee that the number of people who would change their vote would be enough to shift the election's outcome in any given state. Here's how NBC News caveated its findings, which showed an overall swing toward Biden in the face of a conviction but still within the margin of error:

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, the GOP half of the bipartisan group of pollsters who conduct the NBC News survey, cautions that the sliver of voters who shift on these two ballots — 55 in total out of 1,000 interviews — hold overwhelmingly negative opinions about Biden, and they also prefer a Republican-controlled Congress by more than 60 points.

As a result, McInturff says, he has doubts if these voters would really stick with Biden even if Trump is convicted of a felony.

Biden has chosen to stay silent about Trump's legal troubles as the cases have unfolded, but his campaign is now preparing to use a guilty verdict to its advantage, NBC News recently reported, internally debating whether to brand him a "convicted felon" in its messaging. Whatever the result, one person familiar with the discussions told NBC News the campaign will stress to voters that "Donald Trump's legal troubles are not going to keep him out of the White House. Only one thing will do that: voting this November for Joe Biden." If there's an acquittal, though, it's hard to say whether another instance of Trump seeming immune to accountability would encourage or discourage Democrats from turning out.

We are now finally moving away from possibility to hard and fast reality, which may look very different than the predictions based on polling.

Depending on where the jury lands, Trump, as he always has, will either praise or denounce the system. A conviction in a state court would be something he couldn't undo even if he's elected president again. It would be yet another asterisk next to his name, one more humiliation to add to the list. While it would be another grievance for him to seek revenge against, an appeal would be yet another costly distraction to a campaign already hemorrhaging money on his legal fees. And yet his supporters, following the lead of the spineless Republicans who have showed up at court to buoy him, may well shrug and cast their votes for a convicted criminal.

An acquittal, though, will be another supposed "total exoneration" — and this time it would be true. (Of course, a process he otherwise claims to be rigged that still rules in his favor has proven its merit in his mind.) It wouldn't be surprising for his campaign to even spin a hung jury as a victory. I can already picture one of his many emails crowing about how Crooked Joe Biden (who had nothing to do with the prosecution) couldn't manage to take him down in court. It will push his supporters to donate for when the "Biased Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg," as I imagine the copy will dub him, charges him again.

All of this is projection, of course, as we wait for the end of the yawning silence that has echoed since the defense, which only called one witness, rested Tuesday. In this liminal space, the future hangs by a thread. Guilty? Not guilty? A mistrial? Whichever it is, it will likely be more than we can truly wrap our heads around.

Hayes Brown

Hayes Brown is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily, where he helps frame the news of the day for readers. He was previously at BuzzFeed News and holds a degree in international relations from Michigan State University.

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