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Trump may have finally found a scandal he can't beat

The New York hush-money trial reminds Republican voters of everything they don't like about the former president.

When the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape of Donald Trump sharing his horrifying thoughts about sexual assault became public in October of 2016, I reassured a van full of colleagues from the Hillary Clinton campaign that it would surely be the end.

"Don't worry," I told them. "It's fatal."

As it turned out, I was wrong. Trump not only survived the worst campaign scandal in modern history but also went on to escape consequences for a range of misbehavior in the Oval Office, including a damning special counsel investigation, two impeachments, and an attempted insurrection.

So it's tempting to play it safe and argue that his latest scrape — the first criminal trial of a former president — will be just another speed bump. That it won't matter to voters.

Reminding voters of his immoral and possibly illegal behavior will turn off the Republican and swing voters he needs to win.

But I don't think that's the case. In a close election, everything matters. Given Trump’s continued problems in fully uniting Republicans around his campaign, there’s reason to believe that reminding voters of his immoral and possibly illegal behavior will turn off the Republican and swing voters he needs to win.

Here are the three biggest reasons:

Voters take the charges in the Daniels case seriously. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in a recent New York Times/Siena Poll said the charges were serious. That means even Republican voters who have supported Trump in the past are concerned by the charges. Trump was able to avoid political damage in the past by casting the special counsel investigation and impeachments as political. Still, the criminal charges may prove more challenging to explain away.

Rule-of-law Republicans are a growing force. A new group of anti-Trump voters has emerged on the right—those who supported Trump in 2020 and 2016 but are concerned by his role in the Jan. 6 attack and his lack of respect for the rule of law. If Trump is convicted of breaking the law by a jury of his peers, that could prove another mark against him among Republican voters who care about law and order, as polling during the Republican primary showed. 

Evangelical voters may be on the edge. Evangelical Christians made an implicit deal with Trump in 2016: They would overlook his bad behavior if he gave them a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade. That is done, and it's not clear whether Trump has anything sufficient to offer this time around, especially as he struggles with the issue of an abortion ban. And the hush-money case involves claims about the kind of behavior — cheating on your pregnant wife with a porn star and then lying about it — that most troubles them. In fact, after a "60 Minutes" interview on CBS with Stormy Daniels in 2018, more white evangelicals believed her side of the story.

For the last eight years, Trump's hold on a chunk of Republican voters has seemed unshakeable, allowing him to weather all kinds of scandals. But as he sits in a courtroom in the coming weeks, with his wife conspicuously absent, he may finally face a political penalty. At long last, the Teflon may be wearing off; this time, it could be politically fatal.

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