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Trump on trial: Personal anguish, political defiance and a loss of control

NEW YORK — For 20 minutes Donald Trump campaigned like everything was normal. He made his way down a line of cheering fans outside a construction site at 6:30 a.m., pumping his fist, clasping outstretched hands and signing MAGA hats. “Election interference,” he grumbled about the criminal charges against him, reprising his year-long mantra.

But by 9:30 a.m., Trump was stuck in court, no longer narrating the legal saga intertwined with his run for president. He sat quietly for hours at a time Thursday and watched stone-faced as a longtime friend and former tabloid publisher recounted Trump’s agitation in 2016 when a hush money scheme failed to quash a story about an alleged affair with a Playboy model. His go-to outlet: brief interludes in a dingy courthouse hallway in front of TV cameras, where he has vented about the judge, the “freezing” temperatures in the courtroom and “sitting up as straight as I can all day long.”

Two weeks in, the first criminal trial of a former president has been personally taxing for Trump and disruptive to his campaign. Despite efforts to schedule dinners where donors, friends and world leaders join him, Trump’s moods are worse on trial days, according to several people close to him. The former president is accustomed to near-daily rounds of golf, “constant stimulation” and cheers when he enters and exits a room at Mar-a-Lago, they said. Instead, he is now reporting four days a week for mundane court arguments and long stretches without permission to check his phone.

“The phrase around here is ‘the process is the punishment,’” said one person close to Trump, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Trump has done his best to turn his trial into an extension of his 2024 campaign, raging that the case is politically motivated and bragging that he can assemble adoring crowds even in heavily Democratic Manhattan. He has marveled to advisers that he gets more media attention outside court than he even did on the campaign trail, and that his comments are sometimes carried live. But the indictments that once helped Trump lock down the GOP nomination by firing up his base have become a serious constraint in the general election and thrust the domineering candidate into an unusually humbling position.

The trial is taking time and resources just as his campaign is rushing to build out infrastructure for the general election and close a fundraising gap with President Biden. Expected to stretch six to eight weeks, the trial is limiting the schedule of the presumptive GOP nominee at a critical moment when Biden is outspending him on the airwaves and seeing some improvement in the polls, though Trump’s team notes the former president still holds an edge in many surveys of a very tight race.

During the Republican primaries, Trump could swoop in and out of his court proceedings with more flexibility and campaign on the sidelines. Now the former president is required to attend; adding insult to injury, his first mid-trial rally was canceled last weekend because of bad weather. Next week, Trump is planning to squeeze two rallies — in Michigan and Wisconsin — into his off day. His team was angered that the judge chose Wednesday as the day off — believing it was meant to hurt him politically. He has trekked to his club in Westchester to play golf on the days he has been off, instead of hitting the trail.

Although Trump has consistently survived major scandals, the New York case is training new attention on salacious allegations that could give some voters pause. Trump is accused of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money payment to an adult-film actress, whose allegations of an extramarital affair with Trump threatened to hurt his 2016 campaign. He has pleaded not guilty.

Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller, who has been attending court with the former president, rejected the idea that the trial has dampened Trump’s mood or hindered his campaign, despite what he called “some justifiable outrage” about the case. He said Trump “keeps telling us to load up his schedule” with events.

“Obviously, Trump would rather be in battleground states,” Miller said. “But we have a great candidate; we have a phenomenal airplane. … We’re going to bring the campaign trail to us.”

Trump has settled into a predictable if surreal rhythm for the trial, with his court appearances punctuated by all-caps social media posts and brief combative remarks in front of the press. He fields questions occasionally, sometimes ignoring reporters’ shouted queries.

“I’d love to say everything that’s on my mind,” Trump lamented to reporters this past week, chafing at a gag order forbidding him to talk publicly about witnesses, jurors and some other people linked to the case.

Prosecutors complained to the judge that Trump was still not restrained.

He’s been violating the gag order “right outside the door,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy said.

The outcome of the trial could sway some voters, polling shows, and Trump faces three other criminal cases, though it’s unclear if any others will go to trial before the election. Nearly a quarter of registered voters who back Trump say a conviction in one of his cases might cause them to reconsider supporting him, according to a CNN poll conducted April 18-23.

Americans were evenly split on whether Trump has been treated more harshly or more leniently than other defendants, underscoring how voters of different political persuasions and backgrounds are absorbing Trump’s legal woes in very different ways.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that there was nothing improper and attacked the credibility of a central witness, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen. On his first Monday in court, Trump emerged with his trademark red tie, shoulders slightly hunched, to denounce proceedings as a “political persecution,” “an assault on our country” and “really an attack on a political opponent.” (Despite Trump’s claims, there is no evidence that local prosecutors have coordinated with Biden or his administration.)

“So I’m very honored to be here,” Trump concluded.

The trial has been a jarring shift for a man who is rarely confined to silence, often around people paying to see him, and used to spending his days making phone calls, holding meetings, reading newspapers, tending to his properties, taping videos and peacocking around his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Trump has also long prized having control of many of the details in his day-to-day life, people familiar with the matter said.

He largely avoids restaurants outside his properties because he wants control over the food — particularly how his steak is cooked. He has avoided certain hotels on the road, telling advisers he prefers a Holiday Inn Express, because the bathroom floors are light colored and he can see if there is dirt. At his property, he controls the music — both the song choice and the volume. He was personally involved in renovating his plane, asking for constant updates, and complained about having to use the private planes of others while his was in the shop for over a year.

Last year, a group of Trump advisers and lawyers spoke with him about the benefits of his criminal cases — his small-dollar fundraising was surging, he was crushing Republicans in the nomination fight, and his base was rallying to his defense. But Trump stopped the conversation to remind the group of a problem: He had been indicted four times and was going to spend the next year in court.

“It’s almost like he can’t believe it,” the person close to Trump said. “There is a sense when you talk to him, ‘Can you believe this? They indicted me.’”

Now captive to the courthouse for much of the day, Trump tries to exert influence over what he can, often serving as his own spokesman between sessions. On the first Thursday of the trial, the former president appeared brandishing a thick stack of news clippings, claiming that every article vindicated him. But his loss of power is evident: At one point, when he stood up, the judge immediately told him to sit down — and he did. When he has mumbled in court, the judge has reprimanded him.

Privately, he has complained at times to his lawyers, giving suggestions for what arguments they should make and sometimes second-guessing their arguments in the courtroom. But he is generally pleased with this set of attorneys, people close to him said.

On Friday, he opened his morning media remarks by wishing his wife, Melania Trump, a happy birthday.

“It would be nice to be with her — but I’m in a courthouse for a rigged trial,” Trump said.

He rails against the lack of mass demonstrations outside, falsely claiming that police are keeping hordes of supporters away. On Monday, he declared on social media that the area outside the court was “completely CLOSED DOWN,” though some protesters had been chanting and walking on the sidewalk. By Tuesday he was saying that “Thousands of people were turned away from the Courthouse in Lower Manhattan by steel stanchions and police.”

There have been some minor demonstrations, with appearances from far-right activist Laura Loomer and conservative commentator Andrew Giuliani. But on Thursday afternoon, 68-year-old Gary Phaneuf was the only Trump supporter visibly protesting in the park outside the courthouse.

“Fight for Trump!” the Staten Island resident shouted as other New Yorkers in the park went about their day.

Phaneuf, who was arrested for a curfew violation in Washington after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, said he was disappointed in the turnout for the trial. He speculated that Trump supporters got discouraged from mass mobilization after Jan. 6.

“We got nothing here right now, let’s be real,” Phaneuf lamented. “You don’t see any prominent Republicans here today, do you?”

Trump has been mostly impassive when court is in session, sandwiched between lawyers at the defense table as reporters scrutinize his every move. Some days, his most notable reaction is a yawn.

He frowned when David Pecker, the former National Enquirer publisher, discussed a Trump Tower doorman who had claimed — falsely, Pecker said — that Trump had fathered a child outside his marriage. He briefly folded his arms in front of his chest when Pecker turned to the topic of Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who alleged an affair with Trump.

His tone during his brief appearances outside the trial room, meanwhile, has at times veered into outright mewling. “I’m sitting here for days now, from morning till night in that freezing room,” he moaned at one. “Freezing! Everybody was freezing in there, and all for this.”

He has griped about the court-imposed gag order, complaining that he has been unfairly muzzled. And he says he should be out campaigning. “I should be right now in Pennsylvania and Florida and many other states — North Carolina, Georgia — campaigning,” Trump said last week.

Some of Trump’s grousing has provided an opening for the Biden campaign, which has gleefully seized on his daily remarks to portray him as feeble and infirm. “Trump says he has difficulty sitting for long periods of time and staying awake,” the Biden campaign wrote on X.

At the end of the day, Trump returns to Trump Tower, his famous property in Manhattan. People close to Trump said he appears happiest in his gilded triplex there, which remains furnished from his time in New York. During evening dinners, the conversation often veers back to the case.

Late Thursday afternoon, a small crowd began to gather outside the tower at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and East 56th Street. By just after 5 p.m., about a hundred people were waiting to catch a glimpse of Trump, even though police insisted they would not be able to see anything besides the black vehicles.

Some people waiting were the die-hard fans whom Trump aides have made sure to highlight in their videos from New York. “I love him!” declared Lucy Cooper, 16, who said she was visiting from Boston.

Others who wandered by were hostile. One man stopped to take a selfie under the chunky gold “TRUMP TOWER” letters with his hand in the shape of an L, for “loser.”

Dawsey and Parker reported from Washington.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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