Trump’s Out-of-Control Antics Simply Won’t Work in Court

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Former President Donald Trump will appear in a criminal courtroom Monday morning in a case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg over whether, in 2016, Trump used campaign funds to try to keep voters from finding out about an alleged affair with an adult film star.

The case is by no means a slam-dunk, it’s potentially weaker than some of the other criminal cases pending against the former president. Although his legal team has secured substantial delays in those other cases, Trump is actually on a legal losing streak. And despite his outrageous public posturing and boastful claims in the court of public opinion, in an actual court of law, he is learning that he cannot defy legal gravity.

A flurry of last-ditch efforts by his lawyers to further delay the New York trial have all failed: to disqualify the judge, to move the case to another jurisdiction, and to try to extend his arguments about presidential immunity to actions that largely occurred prior to him taking office.

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They played every card they could, even some from the bottom of the deck, and could not convince an appellate judge or court, despite repeated attempts, to put a stop to the trial.

What any casual observer of Trump’s recent track record in court should know, it’s that an actual court does not operate by the same rules as the court of public opinion. In fact, the same behavior in the latter actually harms him in the former, something he may ultimately learn the hard way.

Unlike in the court of public opinion, where Trump’s bluster and bullying may help win supporters and cause some to cower, when court is in session, the rules of evidence and procedure kick in. The same tactics that might give Trump some public relations wins do not really work in court. In fact, they often backfire.

E. Jean Carroll and her attorneys.

The first legal domino to fall against Trump was his loss before a jury in a federal trial in Manhattan, one brought by the columnist E. Jean Carroll. She claimed the former president sexually assaulted her in a department store dressing room.

But her first case wasn’t a case about sexual assault per se. It was actually a defamation suit, one that alleged Trump had harmed Ms. Carroll’s career and caused her financial harm when he attacked her for raising claims about the assault.

After she beat him once in court, Trump couldn’t help himself and maligned her once again. Carroll sued him for defamation a second time, and was also able to add a sexual assault claim based on a change in New York law. A new jury multiplied her damage award by a factor of ten after a second trial, putting Trump in debt to Ms. Carroll to the tune of over $83 million. There, Trump’s efforts to win in the court of public opinion actually led to his defeat in a court of law.

Similarly, despite efforts to malign the judge in a second case—brought by the New York Attorney General Letitia James—once again, Trump found himself on the losing end. This time, the case alleged civil fraud in his and his company’s business practices.

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His antics both inside and outside the courthouse included storming out of court and making statements that seemed designed to disrupt the trial—the type of statements he’s fond of making regarding his adversaries when talking to the press or over social media.

Such comments backfired, and his attempts to give what were described as “long, irrelevant speeches” when he testified resulted in the judge concluding that Trump had “severely compromised his credibility.” In that case, Attorney General James won a judgment—currently under appeal—for nearly half a billion dollars.

These losses, where his behavior outside (and even inside court, at times) may score Trump some political points and give him a chance to try to raise money for his campaign and to pay his mounting legal bills. But they also point to a harsh reality for the former president.

New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg on April 4, 2023.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

When Trump goes to trial in an actual court, his typical behavior does not generally help him. Rather, what is more common is that these antics—which are rarely tolerated with respect to run-of-the-mill defendants—actually undermine his position rather than strengthen it. (This may help explain why there was such an extraordinary run of highly unusual attempts to forestall Trump’s potential judgment day in the so-called hush-money case.)

Trump’s lawyers in the upcoming New York case even had the chutzpah to argue that all the adverse publicity surrounding the trial meant the case should be moved to a different jurisdiction, presumably one not affected by such adverse publicity. What those lawyers failed to mention is that much of the publicity surrounding the trial actually came from the former president himself.

The effort to move the trial failed and, yet again, the ethics of the public arena did not play well in the court of law.

What Trump—and the rest of us—may be learning is that legal gravity is real. It also applies to former presidents, even those named Trump, and even ones who claim they can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

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Bragg’s case has its complications and challenges, ones that would normally give some prosecutors a degree of pause. And the former president is certainly entitled to the presumption of innocence unless and until a jury finds against him.

It is still not just possible, but perhaps even likely, that the former president will find himself, once again, on the business end of a jury verdict. This time, it is one that could bring with it not tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in civil liability, but criminal liability, and even jail time.

This is no laughing matter for the former president, and the efforts of his lawyers to try to avoid this trial make it appear that Trump and his team understand that. The former president is likely to find out soon whether his oft-quoted phrase about his ability to get away with criminal behavior on the streets of Manhattan holds true. If he really holds the belief that he can soar above the rules that apply to everyone else, that belief may just come crashing down to earth in yet another courtroom in New York.

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