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News / Northwest

Washington politicians, law experts chime in on first criminal conviction of a president in U.S. history

By Ellen Dennis, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 31, 2024, 8:16am

When news broke Thursday that the first president in U.S. history was convicted of a crime, animated responses rang out from politicians and legal experts all across Washington state.

“Today’s verdict out of New York affirms what the Washington State Democratic Party has been saying for more than eight years — Convicted Felon Donald Trump is wholly unfit to lead our nation,” Washington State Democratic Chair Shasti Conrad said in statement. “His conviction today by a jury of his peers demonstrates the lengths Convicted Felon Trump will go to and the laws he will break to get what he wants — another four years of power at the expense of hard-working Americans.”

In a contrasting statement, Washington State Republican Chairman Jim Walsh denounced the legitimacy of the New York legal proceedings that led to Trump’s conviction.

“This trial has been a circus from the start. The charges are dubious. The prosecutors have made their political biases evident for all to see,” Walsh said. “And the judge has undermined his own credibility in a flamboyant, cartoonish manner. It is very likely the conviction will be overturned on appeal. What a mess. What a waste of taxpayers’ money. The only good part of this whole sordid affair is that the people see through the clown show. And it will backfire.”

A New York City jury spent two days deliberating 34 felony charges against former President Donald Trump before finding him guilty on all counts for falsifying documents to cover up a payment to silence adult film actor Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. The 12-person jury announced its verdict for the hush money trial Thursday afternoon in a decision that rocked the country less than six months before Trump will vie for another term as the nation’s president.

Trump’s ongoing legal scandals have taken a front seat in the discourse of races for dozens of local, state and congressional elected offices in Washington. Those who previously stood behind the former president publicly renewed their allegiance to the now-convicted felon, while those who decried his actions in the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol celebrated the former president’s conviction.

Northwest Democrats in Congress were quick to post reactions on social media, with Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, Rick Larsen of Everett and Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor all saying that “no one is above the law” in posts on X. The region’s congressional Republicans were quieter, and with both the House and Senate in recess, lawmakers won’t have to face reporters at the Capitol until next week.

“A jury of 12 courageous people put aside all biases to listen to evidence from the defense and prosecution,” Jayapal said. “They have rendered Donald Trump guilty on all 34 counts. No one is above the law, not even a former president. This is an important moment for accountability in America.”

Brian Dansel, a Republican candidate running to represent the 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, called Thursday’s verdict a “disgrace” and “travesty” in a statement.

“From the entire start, this case has been a political witch hunt driven by Democrats who have weaponized our legal system,” Dansel, a current Ferry County Commissioner, said. “They will stop at nothing to silence the millions of voters who are fed up with Joe Biden’s incompetence.”

Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, another Republican candidate running to represent the 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, also denounced Trump’s conviction in a statement.

“Today’s conviction of a former President by a state court on flimsy charges in a hyper partisan setting sets a bad precedent that is likely to haunt both political parties in the years to come, “ Baumgartner said. “It’s a bad day for the rule of law.”

In central Washington, where Republicans Tiffany Smiley and Jerrod Sessler are challenging GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, the convictions drew a sharp rebuke.

“This weaponization of our judicial system sets a terrible precedent, and the American people have been clear that this trial is not going to change their support for Trump,” Smiley posted on X. “Going forward, I’ll continue to support Donald Trump’s campaign and look forward to voting for him in Nov!”

Sessler also supported Trump and called the trial rigged.

“President Trump gave up fame and fortune to fight for the American people. And he is still fighting,” Sessler said.

In a phone interview Thursday, Spokane County Democrats Chair Naida Spencer told The Spokesman-Review that she was “thrilled” to hear news of Trump’s conviction.

“The criminal justice system is going after powerful men who commit crimes just as much as the regular population,” Naida said. “We’re so grateful for the people and the jurors who took their duty seriously and the risk that they’re taking.”

University of Washington Law Professor Jessica West was not surprised by the jury’s decision Thursday, she said, because the evidence presented by the prosecution was strong. As a longtime law professor and lawyer, she said she was concerned to hear public figures — including the former president himself — denouncing the validity of due process and the legal system when the verdict was announced.

“It’s not a corrupt system,” West said in an interview. “It’s a good and strong system. There are 12 jurors and (the defense) needed to convince only one of them to win. That’s it. They had a chance to present their testimony. Mr. Trump could have testified if he wanted to. There were lots of protections in place.”

West added it’s unfortunate timing that the verdict dropped during summer break, so she can’t go into her criminal law class tomorrow and discuss the verdict. Through her work, the lawyer and professor said she’s encountered a lot of people who think the conviction means Trump will no longer be legally able to run for president in November.

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This isn’t the case. He could still be elected. When asked why she thinks the U.S. Constitution doesn’t forbid a convicted felon from running the country, West said she thinks it was an oversight by the framers of the Constitution.

“I don’t think they expected that someone who had been convicted of felonies would be elected as president,” West said. “I don’t think the framers of the Constitution foresaw a need to prohibit someone from serving.”

Cornell Clayton, professor of political science and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, agreed with West in saying he was not shocked by the jury’s verdict in the trial.

“It wasn’t surprising for those who had followed the trial, given how the evidence came in,” Clayton said, adding that the defense “didn’t provide any sort of alternative narrative to rebut the prosecutors’ case.”

Clayton said the verdict may have more of an impact on the institution of the presidency in the long run than it does on the 2024 election.

“I think, historically, it’s extremely important that for the first time we have a president who’s been convicted, criminally convicted, and that will change the way we think about the presidency,” he said, comparing the trial’s outcome to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

“I’m sure it will have some impact on the margins with independent voters. Certainly, it will help the Biden campaign in terms of how they continue to portray this as a clear choice.”

Clayton said the conviction could also hurt the Trump campaign by keeping the former president off the campaign trail as he goes through probation and sentencing hearings.

“This is going to be a further distraction keeping him off the campaign trail,” he said. “It will also mean a lot more legal fees, and money that he’s raising that could be spent on a campaign is going to be spent on lawyers.”

Clayton said the verdict could make it easier for President Joe Biden to talk about the case and simply to call Trump a convicted felon. He added that while most Americans don’t pay close attention to politics, the conviction could draw voters’ attention back to the former president.

In an official statement, a Biden-Harris campaign spokesman celebrated the verdict but warned that Trump remains a “threat” to U.S. democracy.

“Today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality. There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president,” reads the statement from Michael Tyler, the campaign’s communications director.

Within minutes of the verdict’s release, Trump criticized the decision and called the judge “conflicted” and “corrupt.”

“This was a rigged, disgraceful trial,” Trump said. “The real verdict is going to be Nov. 5, by the people, and they know what happened here and everybody knows what happened here.

“I’m a very innocent man.”

Leadership from the Spokane County Republican Party did not immediately return a request for comment.