Apr 17, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Trump, the defendant, confronts courtroom reality


Trump in court on Tuesday. Photo: Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images

Two days into his historic criminal trial, former President Trump is confronting the same rare feeling that fueled his erratic behavior in the wake of the 2020 election: a loss of control.

Why it matters: Trump is quickly learning that Manhattan's criminal courthouse is not like the court of public opinion, where he's broken every rule of politics and bulldozed his way to total Republican dominance.

  • Trump's campaign has been marked by choreographed rallies in front of adoring crowds, a few interviews mostly with sympathetic media, and angry rants outside courtrooms and on social media.
  • But now Trump is on trial in his hush-money case, and his frequent sullen and exasperated expressions in court seem to reflect the reality that he's not in charge anymore.

Zoom in: In the dingy 15th-floor courtroom ruled by Judge Juan Merchan, Trump is a criminal defendant with the same rights — and restrictions — as any American facing charges in the State of New York.

  • The former president must attend every day of his trial in-person, with no exception for next week's Supreme Court hearing on his claim of presidential immunity from prosecution.
  • Trump already has been slapped with a gag order — and now is at risk of being held in contempt for criticizing two potential witnesses, Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen.
  • Tensions hit a new high on Tuesday when Merchan scolded Trump for "muttering" and "gesturing" at a potential juror: "I won't tolerate that. I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom," the judge warned.

The big picture: Trump is intent on exploiting the trial to advance his claims of "political persecution." But the courtroom has a special knack for piercing the carefully choreographed trademarks of his political persona, including:

  • His strongman image: The Trump campaign lashed out at reports that the former president dozed off during the first day of jury selection, a potentially damaging observation given the GOP's portrayal of President Biden — or "Sleepy Joe" — as a feeble old man.
  • His "alternative facts": Trump may be forced to temper his false assertions about the case after next week's hearing on his alleged gag order violations. His lawyers, meanwhile, made several references Tuesday to Trump losing the 2020 election — a fact he refuses to acknowledge.
  • His echo chamber: Far from the golden halls of Mar-a-Lago, Trump spent Tuesday forced to listen to the unvarnished opinions of his potential jurors. Many were dismissed for trashing Trump on social media or admitting they couldn't be impartial.

The other side: Trump is still finding ways to slip in campaign messaging during his trial, including through a non-stop stream of posts on Truth Social.

  • After leaving the courthouse yesterday, Trump visited a New York bodega that had been the scene of a violent crime — a jab at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The DA's office faced a flood of criticism over a (now dropped) murder charge against an employee who said he acted in self-defense.
  • Trump also will hold a rally Saturday in Wilmington, N.C., where he's likely to unleash after his week of relative restraint. But expect a different tone when he trudges back to the courtroom on Monday.
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