Opinion | Trump Is Blocking Out the Sun: Three Writers on the Politics of the Guilty Verdict


Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted a written online conversation with Josh Barro, who writes the newsletter Very Serious, and Olivia Nuzzi, the Washington correspondent for New York magazine, to banter and bicker about the potential political fallout of the Trump conviction.

Frank Bruni: Josh, Olivia, great to be with you. I want to start not with Donald Trump but with Joe Biden. What happens on Nov. 5 has as much to do with Biden’s navigation of the coming months as with Trump’s, and Biden is getting all sorts of conflicting advice.

What’s the optimal balance between running against a “convicted felon” and focusing on the day-to-day concerns of less partisan, less engaged voters? I for one think Biden needs to be very careful about overdoing the felon part — voters are well aware of Trump’s status, transgressions and, er, character. Your thoughts?

Josh Barro: A defining feature of this campaign, as Nate Cohn has written on extensively for The Times, is that Biden’s support has been holding up well among highly engaged voters and has fallen terribly over the last four years among less-engaged Americans. Much of Biden’s slide in the polls is because of worsening views of him among people who did not vote in the 2020 election. So Biden’s big challenge is that he really needs to reach people who aren’t interested in politics and aren’t likely to hear any given message he sends out.

Most of those less-engaged voters were probably not following the trial closely, or at all. It’s important for those people to hear that Trump is a convicted felon. I’m not sure they need to hear it from Biden personally — it might be a message to be pushed in paid media, by the Biden campaign or by affiliated pressure groups.

Bruni: Hmm, Josh, I don’t know. There’s disengaged and then there’s living off the grid. They really need a reminder that Trump is a felon?

Olivia Nuzzi: I’m with you, Frank. I don’t know that I think the particulars of the trial are all that important to the narrative here. Whether you were mainlining cable coverage or whether you just absorbed the gist while scrolling through your news feeds, the implications about Trump’s behavior are the same.

Bruni: How much confidence do you have in Biden and his aides to find and forge the most prudent path — not just in regard to Trump the felon but in regard to all else? Most of the prominent Democrats with whom I speak have been concerned to the point of panic about how inept they’ve found his campaign. Is a major campaign shake-up necessary?

Barro: Biden’s big political problem is the economic fundamentals: There has been serious inflation, and interest rates have gone up a lot, and people are unhappy about that. People see Biden trailing Trump by a little bit and assume that means Biden is talking about the economy wrong, and he needs a new message. It’s not clear to me that there’s anything wrong with the message. The problem is the economic situation that he needs to message about. And it’s too late to do much to change the inflation or interest rate situation before the election.

Nuzzi: The eternal problem for candidates running against Donald Trump is that he sort of photosynthesizes any and all attention to grow bigger and stronger and block out the sun for everyone else around. He manages to define the terms of the conversation, and because he lives in his own reality, these things do not matter as they would for any other candidate.

Bruni: Let’s pull back from the politics of this all. A former president who is the presumptive Republican nominee and the leader so far in many 2024 polls is a convicted felon, and almost nobody considers that the last word on this election. How does that leave you feeling — not as a journalist but as an American — about America?

Barro: As a highly engaged voter, I don’t personally feel that the verdict gave me new or important information about Donald Trump. I don’t think falsifying business records in furtherance of a scheme to pay off a porn star makes a Top 50 list of his most dastardly acts. It’s just what he happened to be charged with and convicted of.

America is a great and prosperous country where people live well and follow their dreams. I try not to let political events get me down too much when I think about this place.

Bruni: Your statement about America is an important one. For a while now I’ve been banging the drum that one of our problems is an undue, overwrought pessimism about the country. We’ve a long way to go toward our more perfect union, but there is still, obviously, a tide of people who want to be here. That’s no fluke.

Nuzzi: I think everything about Trump’s alleged conduct and the trial is about as American as it gets. I grew up during George W. Bush’s presidency, watching “The Apprentice,” in a very pornography- and criminality-influenced culture — none of this feels out of place. I think a big lesson of the Trump presidency was that America’s institutions are quite strong, and they are able to withstand even political leaders who test them. If he’s elected again, I hope four years from now to be marveling at the wisdom of our founders in the same way.

Bruni: My gut tells me that this June 27 debate isn’t going to happen. It was scheduled before the verdict, with terms that were largely set and favored by the Biden camp, and Trump’s thrashing and wailing and claims of the entire universe being rigged against him — well, those don’t fit neatly with showing up and debating. What do you two think?

Barro: I don’t see how the debate could be canceled. Trump clearly wants to debate — he wants more than the two debates that have been agreed with the Biden campaign. Trump is not going to skip the debate simply because he doesn’t like something about structure. And Biden cannot be seen to duck the debate that he’s already agreed to — it would reinforce the idea that Biden is too old to do basic political tasks like debating.

Nuzzi: Frank, I know you’re asking the questions here, but can you elaborate on how you think it could end up not happening?

Bruni: My larger point is that Trump doesn’t operate by the normal laws of logic or political gravity; he makes up his own rules just as he makes up his own reality; and so expecting the unexpected feels somehow correct. He’s not so much running a campaign as he is staging a sustained tantrum. I’m just wondering what next form the tantrum takes.

Nuzzi: I could certainly see a scenario in which Robert F. Kennedy Jr. makes the stage and the Biden campaign throws a fit and says it agreed only to a one-on-one debate with Trump, and pulls out, and then CNN is left to decide if it wants to host a debate between Trump and Kennedy. Whatever happens for CNN, it does seem likely that Trump and Kennedy will be participating in debates on alternative platforms. If Biden sits those out, he may be able to replicate the success of his “basement strategy” of 2020, in which he was seen very little in the wild amid the pandemic. Or he may suffer for handing the other candidates an opportunity to define him negatively in his absence, and not being there would play into the perception that he’s not quite there.

Bruni: Trump is scheduled to receive his sentence just days before the Republican convention begins. In terms of his prospects for victory in November, is he best served by getting or by not getting prison time? By harshness or leniency?

Barro: The conviction and the sentence may not hurt Trump politically, but I’m a little baffled when people argue that they help him. Who are these supposed people who weren’t going to vote for Trump, but decide to vote for him because they think he’s being punished unfairly?

The Republican polling firm Echelon Insights did a very interesting poll right after the verdict came out — it re-contacted respondents whom it had already surveyed about the election and asked them again how they intend to vote. Six percent of respondents said they were changing their vote because of the verdict — in most cases, saying they were changing to vote against Trump. But Echelon had surveyed these people before, and so it knows that every respondent who said the verdict was causing them to switch to vote for Trump had already previously told Echelon they were voting for Trump.

Bruni: How, if at all, might this conviction shape Trump’s vice-presidential selection?

Barro: I don’t think the conviction itself matters for that, although the list of who showed up to speak on Trump’s behalf outside the court gives you a sense of who thinks he has a shot of being selected. My sense from the coverage is that he’s likely to go with Doug Burgum, the North Dakota governor, who is business-y and rich and won’t do too much to overshadow Trump.

Nuzzi: The selection process this time seems to be playing out much more publicly than in 2016, with Trump leaning on his years of experience as a game show host to gin up some suspense. I don’t think this is quite what people mean when they say campaigns are about storytelling, but it’s the Trumpian version. A Trump campaign, like a Trump administration, is about drama and cliffhangers and choosing your fighters. My best guess is that he will select J.D. Vance, but I suppose I could see Trump going entirely outside of the cast of potential picks in the end.

Bruni: I myself have no predictions, just an observation. If you’re willing to be Trump’s vice president, you shouldn’t be vice president. Sort of Catch-22, the Naval Observatory edition.

Barro: Nearly a third of vice presidents have gone on to become president. The odds are probably higher if you’re vice president to a president who is in his late 70s and obese. If you’re someone who’s dreamed of being president since you were in the womb, it’s a tough offer to turn down, even if you have reason to be concerned that a mob of his supporters might try to hang you at the Capitol.

Bruni: Hunter Biden’s trial started this week, and Trump’s conviction guarantees yet more Republican attention to it. I suspect Fox News will cover Hunter as if he’s Vladimir Putin being forced to answer for war crimes in Ukraine. Will the trial have any impact on the presidential contest?

Nuzzi: Trump tried very hard in 2020 to make Hunter Biden into a sort of proxy opponent. I always felt that besides being quite icky, he made strategic political mistakes in doing so, focusing on Hunter’s admitted and well- and self-documented struggles with addiction. Most Americans know someone who has suffered with an addiction, or maybe died from an addiction. Trump’s attempts to weaponize this part of Hunter’s life against his father just didn’t land.

Barro: The whole Hunter Biden situation is very sad, and if you’re the sort of voter who’s open to voting for either candidate, it probably reads to you as sad. I don’t think it’s important for the campaign.

Bruni: In 2020, the Biden campaign rightly made a big deal of high-profile Republicans or erstwhile Republicans who were backing him. Who in that category who hasn’t publicly endorsed Biden to this point would it be smartest to go after?

Barro: The sorts of voters who care about this thing are high-engagement voters, and Biden is already holding up well with them. The better surrogates for him are non-politicians like Mark Cuban, whom low-engagement voters are more likely to be interested in.

Nuzzi: Shoot for the moon, go after W. Why not?

Bruni: Lastly, while I suspect you’ll both dodge this, I have to ask, and maybe you want to live large and dangerous. Today, you’re forced to bet a meaningful amount of money on who wins on Nov. 5. You choose …

Barro: Am I trying to hedge my position? I guess that means I should bet on what I’d consider to be the negative outcome (Trump).

Nuzzi: Frank! I am not a betting woman.

Bruni: And I respect you for that, Olivia. And I thank you and Josh both. Your wisdom is valuable and appreciated.

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Age of Grievance” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter.

Josh Barro writes the newsletter Very Serious and is the host of the podcast “Serious Trouble.” Olivia Nuzzi is the Washington correspondent for New York magazine.

Source photographs by Kevin Dietsch and PhotoQuest via Getty Images, pool photo by Curtis Means.

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