Trump and his allies braced for a guilty verdict. Then the bombshell arrived

By Steve Contorno, CNN

CNN  —  The next time former President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally will be his first as a convicted felon.

When that will be remains to be seen – one of countless unknowns heading into an unprecedented election made more extraordinary by the events of the past week.

The 34-count guilty verdict reached Thursday by a Manhattan jury – the first criminal conviction of a former president – landed like a bomb on the American political landscape. Trump’s campaign had long braced for this outcome, readying their candidate and his supporters for an unfavorable conclusion by casting the case as a political spectacle. But now that a verdict has arrived, uncertainty lurks behind every decision.

No one can say with confidence how voters will respond to this historical moment, or how they will weigh Trump’s conviction against other factors – including their view of President Joe Biden or issues affecting their pocketbooks or personal health such as inflation and abortion access.

Even if the sliver of undecided Americans are ultimately unmoved by the jury’s decision, it’s unclear whether they will gravitate to a seething candidate and a party so plainly seeking revenge.

Trump’s instinct to attack when backed into a corner took hold Friday in the first extended window into how he intends to forge ahead post-verdict.

In a freewheeling and grievance-filled 33-minute speech at Trump Tower, the former president rifled through standard stump speech lines about border security and Biden’s stewardship of the country before lashing out at the individuals he deemed responsible for his legal peril. Trump likened Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing the case, to a “devil” and called the prosecution’s star witness, his former lawyer Michael Cohen, a “sleaze bag.”

Trump continued to claim that Biden was behind the New York hush money case, an assertion that he regularly repeats without evidence.

At the conclusion of his remarks, the former president signaled a readiness to move on to the campaign trail after spending the past two months largely tied to a Manhattan courtroom.

“November 5 is the most important day in the history of the country,” Trump declared Friday, a day after saying that the election would deliver “the real verdict.”

Unclear, though, is when Trump is planning to take this message on the road. His calendar is notably bare, without any announced upcoming public events, a schedule crafted to accommodate jury deliberations that could have continued indefinitely.

Instead, Trump is expected to spend the weekend at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, two sources familiar with his schedule told CNN. Late next week, he begins a West Coast fundraising trip with stops in California and Nevada.

The hush money case, too, is far from over and will continue to hover over the political season. Trump and his lawyer, Todd Blanche, have indicated they will appeal, a process that could outlast the campaign itself. A gag order that limited whom Trump could talk about during the legal proceedings also remains in place.

Merchan has set a July 11 sentencing date – which falls four days before Republicans gather in Milwaukee to officially nominate Trump at their national convention. The former president’s legal team is undecided on whether to ask Merchan to move the date, CNN reported Thursday, leaving the door open for his sentence to become a focal point of the party’s convention messaging.

Trump has leveraged his legal troubles since a New York grand jury, in March 2023, issued the first of the former president’s four indictments. The indictments effectively galvanized Republican voters around Trump’s third White House bid, helping him overcome well-funded primary competition from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and others who thought the party might be ready to move on from the former president.

In campaign speeches across the country over the past year, Trump is often fixated on his cases and leans on them to rally his supporters and even reach out to new audiences. He has suggested that his mug shot, captured after he was indicted in Georgia for attempting to overturn the state’s 2020 election result, would appeal to Black voters. Last weekend, Trump attempted to connect with a Libertarian crowd by mentioning the charges he faces.

“So, if I wasn’t a Libertarian before, I sure as hell am a Libertarian now,” he said.

However, the campaign intends to message on his conviction going forward, and it will do so with new firepower. Trump’s team quickly capitalized on Republican outrage stemming from Thursday’s verdict. A flurry of fundraising appeals helped bring in almost $53 million in donations in the 24 hours after the jury announced its decision, his campaign said.

Throughout Washington, Trump’s allies – some of them jockeying to be his running mate – responded Friday with a series of escalating calls for retribution on his behalf.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, demanded that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Matthew Colangelo, an attorney in the prosecutor’s office, testify next week “about the unprecedented political prosecution of President Trump.” Several Republican senators – including vice presidential contenders Marco Rubio of Florida and JD Vance of Ohio – signed a letter signifying they would not work with the Biden administration to pass legislation, confirm his judicial nominees or increase nonsecurity spending.

Vance, during a Friday appearance on Fox News, vowed to “fight back” with investigations of Democrats and their donors and by subpoenaing Merchan and his daughter. The judge’s daughter, who served as president of a campaign consulting firm that works with Democratic candidates, became a target of Trump’s attacks before Merchan included her in his gag order.

“We need to get to the bottom of it, and when we find wrongdoing, we have to be able to actually punish it,” Vance said. “That is the only language that I think these people are going to understand.”

Trump’s campaign is already making clear it intends to call out Republicans deemed insufficiently loyal in this moment.

When Larry Hogan, a former Maryland governor and Republican Senate candidate, called for Americans to “respect the verdict and the legal process,” Trump campaign manager Chris LaCivita responded on social media: “You just ended your campaign.”

LaCivita also called out the College Republicans National Committee for posting on social media: “The outcome of this trial should be respected.”

“Opinions are like a**holes,” LaCivita wrote. “Everyone has one.”

CNN’s Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.

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