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Trump’s campaign by trial: Courthouse outbursts and cries of victimhood

 (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
(Bloomberg via Getty Images)

He didn’t have to be there, and according to his attorneys, he didn’t want to be. Days earlier, Donald Trump’s lawyers tried to convince a judge to postpone closing arguments in his fraud trial altogether, until the end of the month, so he could be with his family after the death of his mother-in-law.

Instead, the former president turned a hallway inside New York County Supreme Court in lower Manhattan into a press conference on 11 January. As he had done several times over the four months prior, he sat with his lawyers at the defence table, where he was photographed in images blasted across news networks and on social media. But for the first time, he used the microphone in front of him to lash out at the judge in front of him, the attorney general suing him, and the case itself.

Hours earlier, he was in Iowa, answering a round of softball questions from a supportive Fox News audience on a brightly lit stage that looked more like a game show than a town hall.

After he left Judge Arthur Engoron’s courtroom, Mr Trump went to one of his brand-building properties in New York City to give a press conference aired on the same network.

The chain of events underscored his reliance on his growing legal battles for his own campaign for the presidency, using his criminal and civil cases to cast himself as a victim of political persecution, while telling his supporters that what he claims is a conspiracy against him will come for them, too, unless he stops them.

The trials have become his campaign, packed with court appearances, and the campaign is his chance to bury the charges, if elected.

In dozens of posts on social media and in campaign fundraising messages, he has repeatedly falsely claimed that he’s being forced off the campaign trail to attend courtroom hearings that he is not obligated to attend. He calls them “election interference,” amplifying an evidence-free narrative that the consequences of his alleged actions are a Democratic-led conspiracy to keep him out of the White House.

The case in New York – where closing arguments on 11 January marked the end of a trial that started with a September 2022 lawsuit and ended after 11 weeks of witness testimony – could imperil the future of his family’s brand-building real estate empire.

Whether he will face a potentially business-crushing final judgment or emerge from the case relatively unscathed financially, the case has struck a powerful blow to the narrative that built up his political persona in the first place.

“For Donald Trump’s entire half-century of public life – even when he went into the Oval Office – his persona as one of America’s most successful real estate developers and businesspeople has been central to his identity, his celebrity, and his sense of self,” according to Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the former president’s first impeachment.

“This trial strikes to the heart of that by showing the falsehoods and frauds at the center of his business empire,” Mr Eisen told The Independent.

The lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James accuses Mr Trump and his co-defendants of purposefully misstating values and basic facts about his star properties to get better terms from financial institutions over a decade. His net worth was inflated by as much as $2bn in one year, according to state attorneys.

Judge Engoron already had found the defendants liable for fraud, leaving the trial to determine what they owe, and if Ms James is successful on several other counts against them in her complaint.

Her office is seeking to recover $370m in so-called “ill-gotten gains” from roughly $199m from property sales and $169m from savings on interest rates the Trumps wouldn’t have otherwise received if they gave lenders accurate assessments of his financial state, according to state attorneys.

She also wants to block him from doing any real estate business in the state for the rest of his life.

Those potentially crushing money damages, which the defendants may or may not be able to afford, could effectively steer him out of business in the state altogether. He will certainly appeal any judgment against him.

“So this goes beyond just a possible legal loss and is as personal as it gets for the former president,” Mr Eisen told The Independent.

“He may care as much or more about this civil case that could cost him his businesses as he does about the criminal ones that could cost him his freedom,” he said.

The real estate ‘artist’ is now ‘searching the cushions for change’

The Trump Organization trial offered the former president and his attorneys a chance to refute the case’s central allegations that his net worth and assets were purposefully inflated. The defence instead painted a portrait of the Trump Organization’s successes. It’s a story that Mr Trump has told for decades, framed the basis for his hit reality series The Apprentice, carved his path to the White House, and could now be used against him.

Donald Trump Jr testified that his father is an “artist” whose canvas is real estate. In closing arguments, attorney Christopher Kise said he is “part of the fabric of the commercial real estate industry”.

Alina Habba, general counsel for Trump-connected Save America political action committee, said in opening statements that his Mar-a-Lago estate is worth at least $1bn, because “there is a person out there that would buy that property, that spectacular property,” for more than that. “That is not fraud,” she said. “That is real estate.”

“All you have to do is look at a picture of the building and say, ‘That building’,” Mr Trump said during his courtroom testimony in November. “You just look at it and you say: ‘That’s worth a lot more than $550m.’”

In his closing statement, Mr Kise said valuing properties like that doesn’t show “fraudulent intent”, it just means he’s “prescient.”

State attorneys laid out for the first time what they believe was Mr Trump’s motivation for the alleged fraud, suggesting defendants sought to fraudulently secure more favourable financing terms while low on cash during his 2016 campaign and presidency.

That way, “they didn’t have to choose between their priorities,” state attorney Kevin Wallace said in closing remarks.

Those rates were “vital to the company’s operations and also for the run for president,” he said, adding that defendants ended up doing the “rich man’s version of searching the cushions for change.”

The sanctions requested by state attorneys reflect his unwillingness to change his behaviour, his constant need to cast himself as the victim, and his repeated failures to adhere to basic court rules and a gag order despite threats that have endangered the safety of court staff, Mr Wallace said in closing remarks.

“They have not expressed any remorse,” Mr Wallace said of Mr Trump and his former chief executives Allen Weisselberg and Jeffrey McConney. “Nothing is his fault. Everything is a conspiracy and unjust. He’s the victim.”

Turning public attacks into real-world threats of violence

On the trial’s second day, the former president spread false claims about Judge Engoron’s principal law clerk on his Truth Social, prompting the judge to order Mr Trump to delete the “untrue” and “disparaging” statements before issuing a first of two gag orders that blocks Mr Trump and all parties and attorneys in the case from attacking the court’s staff.

In the weeks that followed, the court was inundated with death threats and abusive messages aimed at the judge and his clerk – a pattern accelerated by Mr Trump’s statements about the case that special counsel Jack Smith even mentioned in his requests for a separate gag order in the election conspiracy case.

It’s “part of a pattern, stretching back years, in which people publicly targeted” by Mr Trump are “subject to harassment, threats, and intimidation,” according to prosecutors with the US Department of Justice.

The former president “seeks to use this well-known dynamic to his advantage” and “it has continued unabated as this case and other unrelated cases involving the defendant have progressed.”

Moments after a state appeals court reinstated the fraud trial’s gag orders, the former president unleashed a series of baseless Truth Social posts attacking the judge’s wife and reshared several conspiratorial “reports” from far-right activist and failed congressional candidate Laura Loomer, who accused Judge Engoron’s wife of making anti-Trump memes.

Hours before Mr Trump was expected in court for closing arguments in the fraud trial, police responded to a swatting attempt at the judge’s home.

His volatility and attacks against the justice system itself are his public responses to the unprecedented legal jeopardy, facing four criminal trials, a multi-million dollar defamation case from a woman he sexually assaulted, and more than a dozen state-level challenges to kick him off the ballots, with one to be decided by the US Supreme Court.

When he testified, Mr Trump frequently meandered into volatile campaign rhetoric, from accusing Ms James of trying to “demean” and “hurt” him and slamming her as a “political hack,” to telling the lawyer questioning him that he should be “ashamed” of himself.

“You ruled against me and you said I was a fraud,” said Mr Trump, speaking to the judge while looking towards the floor in front of him. “He called me a fraud, and he didn’t know anything about me.”

Trump says courts should be paying him while raking in campaign cash from his trials

Outside the court’s doors, Mr Trump routinely turned to the cameras on either side of the hallway to attack his rivals and the cases against him. His trials and criminal cases are the subject of his long-winded campaign rallies.

His campaign has sent more than 800 fundraising emails since the fraud trial started in October. Dozens of messages mention his trials, his gag orders, the judges and prosecutors overseeing his cases, or tell his supporters he is on his way to court, inside the court, or has just left court.

The Save America political action committee has paid at least $37m to more than 60 law firms and attorneys since January 2022, according to Federal Election Commission records. Within the first half of last year, his campaign spent more on legal costs – more than $20m – than any other political committee reported spending to the FEC, including the Republican National Committee, Democratic National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee combined.

After he was booked on criminal charges in Georgia for his attempts to overturn the state’s election results in 2020, his campaign slapped his mugshot on fundraising merchandise. It’s on “signed” posters with the words “never surrender”. It’s on $47 T-shirts and $35 mugs. It was on Trump-branded Christmas present wrapping paper.

“I’ve been sitting in a courthouse all day long instead of being in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or a lot of other places I could be at,” he said outside the courtroom’s heavy wooden doors on the first day of the trial. “It’s election interference.”

Two days later, he told the rows of cameras pointed towards the door that he’s “stuck” there and “can’t campaign.”

In a fundraising email sent by his campaign before federal judges heard whether he should be “immune” from prosecution for crimes committed in office, he falsely stated that President Biden is “forcing me into a courtroom in our nation’s capital to defend my right to presidential immunity – a right granted to every other president in history.”

In an all-caps post on his Truth Social, he falsely claimed he was being “forced to circle back to New York” to attend his fraud trial for closing arguments, where the judge and the attorney general “are working together to ‘screw me’”. Hours later, he was in Iowa, smiling on stage for a Fox News event opposite a CNN debate between his rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, appearing together for what could likely be the last debate before November’s election.

A message from his campaign sent while he was in court on the trial’s final day lamented that he wasn’t still in Iowa. He claimed Democratic officials want him “silenced”. Minutes later, he spoke from the defence table in an uninterrupted, rapid string of grievances and attacks against the judge and attorney general.

He owes nothing, according to Mr Trump. In fact, the state should be paying him, he said.

“We have a situation where I’m an innocent man,” he told the judge. “They should pay me for what I’ve gone through.”

This article was originally published on 12 January.