The GOP Faces A Unique Dilemma Ahead Of Trump’s Sentencing

Among all of the other questions raised by former President Donald Trump’s felony conviction, there’s one prickly issue still facing planners of the July GOP national convention: What to do if Trump is in jail when it starts?

Trump’s sentencing date, July 11, is only a few days before the start of the party convention in Milwaukee on July 15. He could end up behind bars by the time the convention starts. The odds of that happening are slim-to-none, but that hasn’t stopped GOP officials from musing about what to do.

“We’re working on that now,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Whatley said on Newsmax in early June.

“We expect that Donald Trump is going to be in Milwaukee and he’s going to be able to accept that nomination. And if not, we will make whatever contingency planning we need to make for it,” Whatley said June 4.

Exactly what those contingency plans would include, Whatley did not say.

“We are planning on him being here. I think that that’s really where we’re going to go forward with it. Of course obviously you have to have contingency plans in place,” Whatley told Spectrum News the next day.

Citing sources familiar with the convention’s planning, NBC News on June 13 reported backup plans were being made at Trump’s home in Florida and at the convention site in Milwaukee in case Trump is not able to be physically present.

Those contingency plans are unlikely to be needed, though, given the virtual certainty that Trump will still be a free man at the time of the convention.

While New York County Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan could certainly send Trump to jail immediately following his sentencing hearing — and indeed, the way Trump during his trial antagonized both Merchan and the criminal justice system as a whole may make that more plausible — Trump will likely be free while his appeals play out, a process that could easily stretch into 2025. Judges are often reluctant to have convicts jailed during the appeals process unless they pose either a flight risk or are considered a danger to others. Trump would not meet those conditions.

In the event Merchan did want to limit his movements, he could order Trump to “self-report” to a jail on a specific date, which would likely be after the convention.

Or he could require Trump to stay what would basically be house arrest at one of his residences in New York City, New Jersey or Florida. On a more limited basis, Trump’s travel could be curtailed, with Trump having to give notice or seek permission to travel outside of a designated area.

A request for comment from the Trump campaign was not immediately returned.

Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant, said it’s unlikely Trump would start serving his sentence immediately. “I think [Merchan] would say ‘report in a week, report in 10 days,’ if there were a prison sentence,” he said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and editor of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball political newsletter, said he thought it was unlikely Trump would be thrown in jail but it was smart to plan for any outcome.

“One way or the other, Trump’s attorneys will probably be able to get him to the convention for a live appearance. Making a martyr out of Trump — even more than he already is — is not in the interests of the court,” Sabato said in an email.

But if he were in the clink, Sabato said he could attend via video link, though it’s unclear how that would work.

“If Trump is incarcerated, my guess is that provision would be made for him to broadcast from a room decorated with flags and bunting from somewhere in the prison,” he said. ”‘Live, from Riker’s Island, the Republican National Convention starring Prisoner No. 384756!’”

“Do you accept the nomination of your party from a holding room in a jail? Or maybe he would be sentenced to home confinement, so accept it from Mar-a-Lago? But I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Shrum said.

Presidential candidates in the past have sometimes checked in from the road on the way to the convention to accept their party’s nomination. Similarly, the 2020 Democratic convention during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic included a virtual roll call of the 50 states, in which each state sent in a 30-second video to air during the event.

The wild card is how incarcerating Trump, who has claimed he is a “political prisoner” after his conviction, would play out politically.

Republicans have been swift to point to surging small-dollar donations to his campaign as evidence that the trial and conviction energized more support for Trump than it cost him, as voters were upset over Trump’s alleged mistreatment.

An Economist/YouGov poll taken in early June, shortly after his conviction, gave some support to that idea. It found 39% of respondents said he had been treated more harshly than other people by the judicial system. But almost as many, 34%, said he had been treated more leniently.

It also found a whopping 92% of respondents said the verdict had not caused them to reconsider who they will vote for in November, compared to 8% who said it had.

Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) said an imprisoned Trump would be all the more certain to win.

“If President Trump cannot attend the convention in Milwaukee physically because they’re following through with this sham trial, the Democrat Party is going to be electing Donald J. Trump as the 47th president,” he told HuffPost.

“What the Democrats didn’t seem to figure out is that they have actually peeled the scales off of Saul’s eyes on the road to Damascus and people are like, ‘Holy beans, I don’t want to live in a country where this can happen.’”

Sabato said the belief that Trump being kept from his own party’s convention benefitting him may be misplaced, though.

“I know what we all usually say — this will infuriate Trump’s base and help him — but isn’t this technique tapped out?” he asked.

“A stunt like this, with poor Donald kept away from his own convention, appeals to the usual suspects, but it also underlines for non-Trump-cult voters just how embarrassing and impractical a Trump presidency might turn out to be.”

The situation is not completely unprecedented, though. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party of America’s nominee for the White House in 1920, was behind bars in an Atlanta federal prison for speaking out against the U.S.’ participation in World War I.

For Debs — or as he called himself in the 1920 campaign, “Convict No. 9653” — it was a mixed bag, according to historians.

A film clip of Debs being told about his nomination circulated around the country, per The Associated Press, and he campaigned by giving a weekly statement to one of the wire services.

Debs received almost 1 million votes in the 1920 presidential election. While the Socialist Party’s share of the vote was down from a peak of 6% in the 1912 election to around 3%, it was second-best electoral showing in the party’s history and the best showing by a third-party candidate until John B. Anderson in 1980.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who served as head of the Democratic National Committee during the 2012 and 2016 conventions, said Trump’s physical presence would likely not be required to accept the nomination.

And she had one piece of advice for Republicans: “Don’t nominate someone who could potentially go to jail.”


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