Stuck in court, Trump turns his criminal trial into his campaign

Former president’s campaign of retribution slams into an exhausting trial he can’t get out of, Alex Woodward reports from New York

Tuesday 30 April 2024 14:28 BST
Donald Trump visits a convenience store in Harlem after his jury selection in his criminal trial on 16 April
Donald Trump visits a convenience store in Harlem after his jury selection in his criminal trial on 16 April (Reuters)

The last place Donald Trump wants to be is seated at a defence table, muted, in a courtroom in New York City, surrounded by reporters, for six to eight weeks.

A man who is used to spending his days golfing, surrounded by loyalists at his Florida resort, raging at network news, and travelling to makeshift arenas for rallies where his name is everywhere, is instead entering the second week of witness testimony in the first-ever criminal trial of an American president.

But like his civil fraud trial down the street from the downtown Manhattan courthouse where he is on trial for allegedly falsifying business records, the former president is relying on the cameras set up in the adjoining hallway to cast himself as a victim of political prosecution, the defining feature of his 2024 presidential campaign.

That rhetoric is amplified in his campaign’s messages to supporters in increasingly absurd and false characterisations of what’s happening in court, where he pits his word against the reporters in the room and the official court transcript.

Moments after Manhattan prosecutors asked a judge to fine him at least $10,000 for a series of posts allegedly violating the trial’s gag order, his campaign fired out an email titled “I’m being held hostage!”

The day before, the campaign warned that “all hell breaks loose in 24 hours” and that Mr Trump “COULD BE THROWN IN JAIL AT THAT VERY MOMENT!”

Hours later, another plea: “My farewell message.”

“If things don’t go our way”, it said, “I could be thrown in jail.”

In another message, clicking “yes” or “no” on “WILL YOU VOTE FOR ME IF THE DEEP STATE THROWS ME IN JAIL?” sends supporters to a donation page.

Trump speaks to reporters after leaving a Manhattan courtroom on 26 April
Trump speaks to reporters after leaving a Manhattan courtroom on 26 April (EPA)

While his campaign falsely tells his supporters that he’s being held “hostage” by US president Joe Biden, he describes his potential election loss in increasingly apocalyptic terms.

“If we lose this election we’re not going to have a country left,” he told supporters at Mar-a-Lago on Super Tuesday.

“I think our country is going to cease to exist,” he said in remarks from Michigan earlier this month. “It could be the last election we ever have. I actually mean that. We don’t win, I think this could be the last election we ever have. That’s where our country is going.”

While President Biden’s campaign outspends Mr Trump on the airwaves, the former president’s political action committees are spending millions of dollars on his lawyers and legal fees, with a trial limiting how much time he can spend on the road in front of cheering supporters, or on his golf courses or on his phone where he can escape them.

He will test the limits of his campaign schedule by holding two rallies in Michigan and Wisconsin on 1 May before heading back to court in New York for two days of testimony.

The former president sits with his attorneys in court in Manhattan
The former president sits with his attorneys in court in Manhattan (EPA)

When he arrives in the courtroom, trudging behind a pair of US Secret Service agents, he sits alone, briefly, staring at the empty room ahead of him. His shoulders tense up, his hands fold in front of him, and he leans against the table where he will be seated for nearly eight hours a day, four days a week.

Over the course of the day, he sinks against his chair, closes his eyes, or stares expressionless at the witness in front of him. When his attorneys and prosecutors share a laugh, he’s stone faced.

And when he leaves, he rises from the table and slowly walks towards the exit, exhausted and glaring at the press around him.

The joint fundraising committee that blasts dozens of messages to supporters each week falsely claimed twice that he “stormed” out of court.

It’s a jarring shift as the televised Trump steps outside the courtroom doors, where he mugs for camera crews, attacking his rivals and the prosecutors and judges handling the cases against him.

“I want to start by wishing my wife Melania a very happy birthday,” he told reporters on 26 April before entering the courtroom. “It’d be nice to be with her but I’m at a courthouse for a rigged trial. It’s a rigged trial, it’s terrible. But we’re doing very well in this rigged trial. Everybody knows it.”

Trump bemoans judge presiding over hush money trial ahead of gag order hearing

But in those New York courtrooms, the former president has been forced to sit in silence while attorneys and witnesses unload evidence supporting allegations that he is propped up by an empire of fraud, and that he covered up a sex scandal to successfully boost his chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.

Across the first days of his first criminal trial, now entering its second week of testimony, the former president has sat quietly for hours, often with his eyes closed or slumped in a chair, while a longtime ally testified about a scheme to suppress damaging and salacious stories during his 2016 campaign.

He listened to prosecutors tell jurors that Mr Trump’s campaign went into “damage control mode” after the world heard him brag about sexually assaulting women.

His attorneys have also adapted Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric in their defence, building up a defendant who thrives on praise and refuses to admit wrongdoing.

“We will call him President Trump out of respect for the office he held,” his lead attorney Todd Blanche said in his opening statement on 22 April. “But he’s not just our former president, he’s not just Donald Trump that you’ve seen on TV or read about or seen photos of. He’s also a man, he’s a husband, he’s a father.”

By the afternoons, between outbursts aimed at President Biden or university protests or oil prices, his attention narrows to the indignity and petty annoyances of having to sit in a courtroom as a criminal defendant. He complains about the “freezing” temperatures and how he has to sit “as straight as I can all day long.”

“This is eight days that we’ve all been sitting in this courthouse,” he said on 26 April. “Our country is going to hell.”

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