Donald Trump’s Sleepy, Sleazy Criminal Trial

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No TV cameras are allowed in Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, and so the dispatches from Donald Trump’s hush-money trial have arrived mostly via text. The human arrangement on display, in which a man in his late seventies is forced to reckon not with his alleged major political crimes (those cases will be brought at later dates, in other jurisdictions) but with more tawdry matters, has proved delicious for the journalists in the room. Some have taken a vintage reporter’s hyper-observational approach: Jonathan Alter noted in the Times that although Trump normally wears a red tie, “for the last four days in court he’s gone with a blue one.” Others waxed more poetic: Olivia Nuzzi, of New York, wrote, “Trump is tilting his head dramatically and making trout-like movements with his mouth.”

All eyes, as usual, were on the defendant. Would Trump make a scene, would he go through with his pledge to testify, would he say something truly wild? Not yet. (Granted, there’s another four weeks to go.) In the corridors, he complained to reporters about the chilly courthouse; listening to testimony, he glazed over. Trump “appeared to nod off a few times,” Maggie Haberman, of the Times, reported, with his “mouth going slack and his head drooping onto his chest.” The minor drama of the pretrial motions orbited around whether the ex-President, under threat of being held in contempt, would stop saying nasty things on social media about the jurors, the witnesses, and family members of the judge and the prosecutors. Perhaps in anticipation that he won’t, the Secret Service is reportedly making contingency plans: according to protocol, if Trump has to spend a few nights in jail, at least one protective escort will join him.

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That Joe Biden appears older and somewhat diminished has been a wellspring of liberal panic. But Trump is diminishing, too, right in front of us. Strapped for cash, and facing an estimated seventy-six million dollars in legal fees, he spent much of the winter courting billionaires at Mar-a-Lago. Having inveighed against White House plans to aid the Ukrainian war effort and to either force a sale of TikTok or ban it, Trump watched as Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House, helped propel both proposals into law. (“GOP lawmakers take Trump’s policy orders with a grain of salt,” a headline in The Hill read.) And though Trump had warned for months that any attempt to try him criminally would induce the wrath of his supporters, by last week, according to the Times, the number of Trump fans outside the courthouse had sunk to the “mid-single digits.”

For those who are paying attention, this trial is shaping up to be an interestingly sleazy spectacle. The case hinges on whether Trump illegally interfered with the 2016 Presidential election by paying the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels not to reveal publicly that she and Trump had had sex, and by conspiring to have the National Enquirer family of tabloids buy off potentially damaging accusers before their stories were publicized. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and current antagonist, and an emotionally operatic presence, will testify; so will Daniels, a cooler customer. The first witness was David Pecker, the former C.E.O. of National Enquirer’s parent company, who described a meeting in August, 2015, at which he, Trump, and Cohen had discussed how he might “help” Trump’s campaign. Pecker said that he had promised to publish positive stories about the billionaire and negative ones about his opponents, and to be “your eyes and ears.”

By Pecker’s account, his magazines paid thirty thousand dollars to a former doorman at Trump Tower, to keep quiet about a hard-to-credit story that the Presidential candidate had fathered a secret child with a maid, and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to a Playboy model named Karen McDougal, to not go public with her more convincing account of a nine-month affair with Trump. (Trump denies all the affairs and any wrongdoing.) “The boss will take care of it,” Pecker said Cohen told him, but, when Trump was slow to reimburse him, the tabloid king refused to act as an intermediary in the effort to buy off Stormy Daniels, leading Cohen to approach her directly. Shortly before the Inauguration, Pecker said, the President-elect invited him to a meeting at Trump Tower—with the soon to be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chair; and James Comey, the F.B.I. director—where Trump thanked Pecker for all he’d done. The two worlds that Trump has defined, of tabloid manipulation and of Republican politics, were thus fully intertwined.

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These elements—adulterous sex, secret payoffs, a Presidential candidate facing thirty-four felony counts—could make for a trial of the century, but, because much of this story has already appeared in investigative reports, including by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, and in congressional testimony, it is missing a crucial ingredient: surprise. Some liberal pundits have wondered whether bringing the case was worthwhile. “I have a hard time mustering even a ‘meh,’ ” the election-law scholar Rick Hasen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, noting the potential for political backlash and the higher-stakes cases to come. (Those cases may become slightly narrower—last week, the Supreme Court seemed receptive to Trump’s arguments that some of the actions for which he has been charged are protected by Presidential immunity.) But the hush-money case is one in which a Presidential candidate is accused of using his wealth to make his election likelier, and whether he committed crimes is a question worth pursuing, especially in the minds of voters who say they wouldn’t vote for a felon. (That’s sixty per cent of independents and a quarter of Republicans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos survey.) The sleepy scene at the courthouse doesn’t suggest a pro-Trump mob so much as a dawning truth: that, for the first time in a decade, Trump is struggling to command attention.

Even in Manhattan, the action is elsewhere. A few miles uptown, at Columbia University, the student protests over Israel’s war in Gaza have drawn international attention, and provoked a media frenzy that has overshadowed Trump’s trial. (The coverage of the protests, a little bizarrely, has also crowded out news from the actual war.) With polls showing the Presidential race essentially tied, Biden might prefer to run against the omnipresent Trump of the 2020 election cycle, whose lies and threats were easier to get people to notice. The dynamic of the trial could carry over to the election: Trump is diminishing, but the public is tuned out, because everyone already knows exactly who he is. ♦



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