The outcome of Donald Trump’s trial in New York could change the political landscape of the USA. A conviction could force him to spend part of his presidency behind bars – should he be re-elected.

Did Donald Trump know that the payments to his then lawyer and man for the rough and tumble, Michael Cohen, were being accounted for as legal expenses, even though they were hush money to Stormy Daniels in order to cover up illegal campaign financing? That is the question that the jury in New York must answer. They have three options to decide.

Either they believe Donald Trump is innocent. In which case he will be acquitted. Or they cannot reach a unanimous conclusion on this issue. In which case the trial will collapse and the prosecution can consider retrial. Thirdly, they can find Trump guilty. Then the judge will determine and announce the sentence in the next few weeks.

In this case, Trump could also be sentenced to prison, which could be suspended. At the moment, no one knows whether this will happen.

If this were to happen, the political order of the USA would be exposed to enormous tensions. Trump’s supporters consider the whole process to be political justice by the Biden administration, which wants to politically destroy Trump. The “communists in Washington” would then have put their presidential candidate behind bars by telling a story.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Jäger has held the chair for International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne since 1999. His research focuses on international relations and American and German foreign policy.

Follow our expert on Twitter!

How do Trump’s supporters react to this possibility? They say: Then he will be elected president in prison. This is possible because in the USA there are only three conditions that people have to fulfill in order to run for president.

First, they must have been born in the United States, second, they must be 35 years old, and third, they must have lived in the United States for 14 years. This applies to Trump. So he can run whether he is a free man or in prison.

If Trump is elected president in November, he would be sworn in from prison in January 2025 and would have to continue to conduct office from there because he would not be able to pardon himself in this case. The president can only overturn sentences imposed by federal courts.

However, the trial in New York – like a second, currently suspended trial for election fraud in Georgia – is not taking place in federal court. Trump would have to serve his sentence as president if no creative solution is found for this case.

This does not deter Trump’s supporters. They would see any guilty verdict as what Trump has been advocating for months: the end of a witch hunt.

The ranks behind Trump have been closing even more tightly in recent weeks because of the trial. This is even reflected in the pictures, as all supporters who traveled from Washington to New York – representatives and senators – dressed like their leader: blue suit, red tie. Trump even influences the clothing style of those who want to make a political career in his wake.

Trump also shapes the style in which the entire process is presented. His brutal choice of words and constant distortion of the facts have found many imitators in the Republican Party. This forces him to resort to increasingly serious accusations.

The most recent example: During the search of his house in Mar-a-Lago, when the government documents he had stolen were confiscated, the officials were said to have been authorized to kill him. This is sheer nonsense, the special investigator is taking legal action against it, but the message is out there. And Trump’s followers are absorbing it and spreading it further.

Trump presents himself to his supporters as the one who stands between them and the abyss. He presents himself as the victim of a corrupt political system that also wants to harm all other Americans. That is why he is making the sacrifice in order to stand up for and protect the vulnerable people in the USA.

This is absurd and ties in with conspiracy theories. But that is precisely why those who support Trump stick with it: they are so deeply entangled in this narrative that they cannot find their way out on their own. And the master of political marketing continues to captivate them with his stories.

There is one group whose reaction to a conviction of Trump is particularly important: independent voters. More than 90 percent of Republicans will vote for Trump, come what may. Democrats will not vote for him.

The independents are wavering between two candidates, both of whom they consider unsuitable. After Trump’s conviction, will they think, well, they’d rather vote for Biden? Despite his age, inflation and immigration policy? Or will they also buy into Trump’s victim narrative?

So far, the polls have been fairly stable. Trump is narrowly ahead of Biden nationwide. In the contested states, however, he is clearly ahead. But it is still very early to draw firm conclusions for the November elections. The impact of a possible conviction of Trump, the first ever of an American president, on opinion formation will be evident beforehand.