Donald Trump, the Defendant – The New York Times

He scoffed. He slumped. He seemed to sleep.

And all the while, he was, for all intents and purposes, stuck.

As the first criminal trial of former President Donald Trump began on Monday with jury selection, he was something he has never wanted to be: a criminal defendant, glowering next to his lawyers, tethered to the rulings of a judge he has railed against and the pedestrian scheduling requirements of the court system.

“This is an assault on America, nothing like this has ever happened before,” Trump said before he went into court on Monday morning, accusing his political rivals of orchestrating the trial but offering no evidence. Trump claimed the charges that he falsified records to cover up a sex scandal with the porn star Stormy Daniels amounted to political persecution.

Still, he added, “I’m very honored to be here.”

Later this month, a different set of lawyers for Trump will appear at the Supreme Court to argue that he is immune from prosecution in another one of his criminal trials, the federal case in which he is charged in connection with his efforts to subvert the 2020 election. They are expected to tell the nation’s highest court, essentially, that Trump’s status as a president during the events in question means he cannot be tried as “Citizen Trump,” as a panel of appeals court judges ruled he could.

But on Monday in New York, that’s exactly what Trump was — a regular citizen who is often referred to in court simply as “the defendant,” and who is facing a criminal trial in his hometown. Trump has long sought to use the justice system for his own benefit, taking cues from his combative former lawyer and fixer, Roy Cohn.

“He learned at Roy Cohn’s knee that if you had enough money and enough brute will, you could weaponize the court system against your opponents and your critics and your enemies and it wouldn’t snap back on you,” said Tim O’Brien, a biographer of Trump who was himself the subject of a libel lawsuit from Trump, which was dismissed.

“He does not want to be in a public forum where evidence and facts are being presented that contradict” his version of events, O’Brien added.

Trump’s lawyers have successfully delayed the two federal cases he is facing over his alleged retention of classified documents and his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Prosecutors in Georgia have proposed an Aug. 5 start date for his trial there on the latter issue.

But in New York the spectacle began Monday. His campaign sent out fund-raising emails in advance building hype around the moment: “72 hours until all hell breaks loose,” read one email sent on Friday. On Truth Social on Monday, he boasted that he had “200 million supporters” behind him.

My colleague Charles Homans stopped by the courthouse on Monday morning. Members of the New York Young Republican Club were protesting across the street, drawing 100 or so demonstrators and a smattering of counter-demonstrators by late morning.

“We’re going to be here for key moments,” Viswanag Burra, the club’s executive secretary, told him, seemingly acknowledging that the vibe was quieter than the face-off between Trump’s supporters and opponents outside his arraignment last year. “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Nearby, Laura Loomer, a right-wing media personality who is covering the trial for Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, was doing her best to generate a circus. Bullhorn in hand, she berated the mainstream media — which accounted for perhaps half the people in attendance at the time — for their trial coverage.

Trump has tried to project strength and confidence around this trial, but it might not be easy.

On Monday, as my colleague Maggie Haberman sat in the courtroom and watched Trump, she pointed out how hard it is to project an image of grandeur in such a setting: a dingy courtroom, slightly off-smelling, where he is “an island amid a sea of people.”

The trial will not be televised. But the public got a brief glimpse of the scene on Monday, when a photograph showed Trump leaning forward at the wooden defense table, his hands clasped, his face set and stony under bright, cold lights.

Trump has previously told reporters that he did not want to be indicted, even though it has helped his polling numbers. And on Sunday night, he lamented on his social media site, Truth Social, how four years ago he was “a very popular and successful President of the United States, getting more votes than any sitting President in history,” leaving out the fact that Joe Biden got more.

Trump often sees himself as a martyr and a hero, said Ty Cobb, a lawyer who worked in the White House when Trump was being investigated by the special counsel Robert Mueller, and who has paid close attention to his public statements since.

“He’s sort of baked this into his political approach in this stage of the game,” he said. “It plays into his victimization thing, which has been constructive for him with his supporters.”

by the numbers

Between four criminal trials and civil cases related to his business practices and an allegation of sexual assault, the crush of legal news about Trump can leave your head spinning. Many voters see the New York trial as the least serious of the four criminal cases. But a Times/Siena College poll conducted last week showed many voters are still paying attention. I asked my colleague Ruth Igielnik, a Times polling editor, to explain what we know.

JB: How seriously are voters taking these charges?

RI: Fifty-eight percent of voters say the charges against Trump in the New York case are very or somewhat serious. Democrats are the most likely to see the charges as serious — nearly 90 percent say that — and large majorities of women, young voters and Black voters say the charges are serious. But about one in four Trump supporters say they think the charges against him are serious, too.

JB: How much attention are voters paying to the cases — and who is paying the most?

RI: Just about one-quarter of voters say they are paying a lot of attention to Trump’s legal cases, and 62 percent say they are paying at least some attention. Democrats are paying a lot more attention to the trials than Republicans. Independents are the least likely to say they are paying attention to Trump’s legal battles.

JB: Does the public think Trump is guilty?

RI: Nearly half of the public thinks that Trump should be found guilty in this particular trial. Not surprisingly, this splits along party lines, with 84 percent of Democrats saying he should be found guilty and 71 percent of Republicans saying he should be found not guilty. Still, 13 percent of Republicans say they think he should be found guilty. Importantly, 18 percent of all voters say they are not sure if he should be found guilty or not — a relatively high share for our surveys. This group is disproportionately made up of Trump supporters, and about half think the charges against Trump are serious.

Into the replies

The case against Trump in New York is tawdry, consequential and deeply confusing.

There are 34 complicated charges. A cast of witnesses. Some extraordinary political implications.

To help you make sense of it all, I’m asking readers for their questions about the trial. Tell me what you want to know, and I’ll hunt down the answers and bring them to you in a future edition of this newsletter.

If you’d like to participate, you can fill out this form here.

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