Defendant Trump Is Not Helping Candidate Trump

Week one of Donald Trump’s hush money trial could have been mundane. It entailed what the legal world refers to as voir dire, during which the judge makes evidentiary judgments to determine which jurors can rule impartially on the case. Yet the first four days of the New York criminal proceedings, which continued with opening statements Monday, painted a rather surprising portrait of a man who could no longer outrun the wheels of justice. They pierced through Trump’s armor in ways both profound and absurd, shattering the public’s perception of a man who may have seemed legally invincible. I knew that this case, compared to those of the past, would prove harder for Teflon Don to repel. But even still, I didn’t think the coating would wear off quite this quickly.

Trump’s political impenetrability has always been rooted in his ability to puff himself up—much like a blowfish, covered in spikes that only the most loyal sycophants can avoid. He is notoriously allergic to apologizing, never owns up to his own mistakes, and often doubles down on the thing he’s done wrong. The one and only time Trump did deliver a proper mea culpa was shortly after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016—but even then, he quickly pivoted to attacking Hillary and Bill Clinton. “I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people,” the former president said. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

It was an “apology” that we’d later come to understand as an example of classic Trump whataboutism. But such rhetorical games are not given any airtime in criminal court. And while the former president might not be treated like your standard defendant, there are certain rules and regulations that he simply can’t bend to his liking: In court, Trump is not allowed to drink Diet Coke; or play with his phone; or eat fast food; or control the thermostat (despite his lawyer’s plea to have it turned up “just one degree”). With Trump facing this harsh new habitat, it appears the only thing he can manage to do is fall asleep—which he did not once but multiple times last week, as Maggie Haberman wrote in The New York Times. “Nodding off is something that happens from time to time to various people in court proceedings, including jurors, but it conveys, for Mr. Trump, the kind of public vulnerability he has rigorously tried to avoid,” she reported. “The mundanity of the courtroom has all but swallowed Mr. Trump, who for decades has sought to project an image of bigness, one he rode from a reality-television studio set to the White House.”

Indeed, stretching back to 2015, Trump has used his larger-than-life, reality-TV repute to go as far as possible in the political world, relying on bombast and bluster in lieu of civility and reason. He believes that American politics is his own reality show—one on which he’s the director, writer, producer, and star who can rewrite all the plotlines. This is why it shouldn’t be surprising to see him fight this week’s legal battle not only inside the courthouse but outside, playing the same victim card he’s used repeatedly—and successfully—with the media. “This is an assault on America. Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said last week, delivering a statement that seemed nearly indistinguishable from those he delivered during his financial fraud and sexual abuse cases. “Nobody has ever seen anything like it, and again, it is a case that should have never been brought.”

These fighting words are, of course, red meat for his base. But they might not play as well with the more moderate voters he desperately needs to win over. Part of the problem is that all of the elements of Trump’s criminal case are very unique to him; no regular person will be able to relate to the sordid revelations that are soon to resurface. Regular people do not have legal mercenaries like Michael Cohen on retainer to, as the former fixer himself put it, “cover up [their] dirty deeds.” Regular people do not strike deals with tabloid executives to kill unfavorable stories about their extramarital affairs with porn stars and Playboy Playmates. All in all, I just don’t think on-the-fence voters are going to believe that Trump—whose legal fate hinges on whether the Stormy Daniels payment qualifies as a campaign contribution—is looking out for anyone but himself in this case.

Bill Maher predicted last year that this trial would only rally pro-Trump voters and help him secure the presidency. “I think this is a colossal mistake if they bring these charges,” the pundit argued. “I mean, yes, [Trump’s] done a lot of bad things, and I’m sure he did this—everything they accused him of [doing], he did. But first of all, it’s not gonna work. It’s gonna be rocket fuel for his 2024 campaign.”

Yet last week felt like the opposite of “rocket fuel.” If anything, what we saw was a grumpy 77-year-old man who was exhausted from hours of sitting on a hard chair in a cold room, falling asleep to potential jurors talking about their (oft-negative) feelings about him. Before the trial started, Trump’s campaign sent out a fundraising email promising that it was “72 hours until all hell breaks loose.” But there was no hell to speak of. Trump supporters didn’t storm the courthouse like they did the Capitol back in January 2021. In fact, the only turnout Trump got was a smattering of his usual toadies, including Andrew Giuliani. We don’t know what the next four days of Trump’s trial will hold. But if he and his supporters are already feeling depleted, imagine how they’ll feel in June.


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