NEW YORK — Former President Trump spent much of this week sitting at a defense table inside New York’s Supreme Court, sometimes grumbling, scowling or throwing his hands up before exiting to deliver fiery stump speeches in the courthouse hallways.
Meanwhile, his political operation persisted, conducting a coordinated campaign to counterprogram his legal woes by blasting out fundraising emails and posts to Truth Social that squarely targeted the judge in the case, his clerk and the New York attorney general, all of whom sat just feet away from Trump and his legal team.
As is often the case with Trump, his week in court was defined by efforts to hog the spotlight and decry the “political witch hunt” against him, which he says is bent on keeping him out of the White House for a second term.
The start of Trump’s civil fraud trial — his attendance at which was originally a surprise — offered a glimpse into how his 2024 political aspirations will collide with a myriad of legal troubles in the form of four criminal indictments and multiple civil cases. When those trials get underway, his appearance won’t always be optional.
Trump has previously protested that sitting in a courtroom will keep him off the campaign trail, but with his growing double-digit lead in polls of likely GOP primary voters, his political advisers may see that as time well-spent.
While Trump spent the first three days of the trial in New York, he’s scheduled to make major campaign stops in Iowa over the weekend and in New Hampshire on Monday, both early-voting states. There, he’s likely to play up his legal troubles to his advantage after taking his first front-row seat in the courtroom.
Trump’s week in court may serve as a blueprint for how his campaign strikes that balance in the future, when court dates and campaign stops collide.
Two federal civil cases involving Trump are scheduled to head to trial in January, and his first criminal trial — the federal case tied to the 2020 election — is set for March 4. The New York hush money trial is set to begin March 25, and the federal case over Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents is scheduled to head to trial on May 20. A fourth criminal case in Georgia has not yet scheduled a trial date.
The dates are subject to change, especially if Trump’s legal teams succeed in any of their bids to delay the trials until after the 2024 election — a core element of their legal strategy, which was on full display during the first week of Trump’s fraud trial.
During a lengthy and meticulous cross-examination of ex-Trump accountant Donald Bender, Judge Arthur Engoron interjected that the government’s first witness was “not on trial.”
“I would disagree with that…We need to be allowed to parse the evidence,” Trump’s attorney Chris Kise said.
“You’re not allowed to waste time,” Engoron replied. “That is what this is becoming.”
Bender’s testimony ultimately spanned four days — three of which involved cross-examination — requiring the government to call its second witness out of order to save time.
Trump’s behavior in and outside the courtroom also caused delays. From the trial’s start, the former president consistently verged on disobeying the judge’s orders, including simple directives such as being on time.
Engoron repeatedly warned the court that he keeps a “tight ship” and would not tolerate delays, an admonition following several Trump speeches outside the courtroom that extended scheduled breaks.
Not an hour after one such warning, Trump strode into the courtroom a half-hour late amid the cross-examination of a government witness, flanked by multiple Secret Service agents whose uniform shuffle to the defense table caused the whole gallery to hush. With an unmoving scowl, Trump took his seat.
“OK, let’s pick up where we left off,” Engoron said, sounding displeased.
Outside the courtroom, he similarly toed the line of the trial judge’s directives. After a post on Trump’s Truth Social targeted Engoron’s principal clerk, Engoron issued a limited gag order barring Trump or any other party in the case from posting or speaking publicly about members of his staff.
Since then, Trump has continued to release campaign emails and Truth Social posts railing against the “Witch Hunt Trial” underway against him. The posts, which do not appear to violate the order, describe New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) as “unfit” and “corrupt,” and Engoron as a “highly political, Trump Hating Judge.”
Trump’s rage over the lawsuit imperiling his business empire was most apparent during his first day in court, where he stared daggers at James when leaving the courtroom and later reviled Engoron outside it.
“This is a judge that some people say should be charged criminally for what he’s doing,” he told reporters just outside the courtroom, adding that Engoron should be disbarred. “He’s interfering with an election, and it’s a disgrace.”
Attacking the judges presiding over his legal cases has become a hallmark of Trump’s legal-political strategy. In Washington, where he faces federal charges over his efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election results, the former president has castigated U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan as unfair and “the Judge of [special counsel Jack Smith’s] ‘dreams.’”
Trump has previously posted multiple times about Judge Juan Merchan, who is handling his hush money case in Manhattan, also referring to him as a “Trump Hating Judge” and claiming Merchan “HATES ME.”
And, in the civil defamation case involving writer E. Jean Carroll, he has derided the judge overseeing it as a “Clinton-appointed judge.”
Trump’s campaign has fine-tuned a coordinated effort through his multiple arraignments and indictments this year to try and maximize attention — and fundraising dollars — for their candidates.
His team has welcomed the media coverage of Trump arriving in court, timing fundraising emails to coincide with his appearances in front of judges or his departures from the courthouse. The strategy has already paid dividends, as evidenced by the roughly $45 million fundraising haul Trump’s campaign brought in during the third quarter of the year, when the former president was indicted in Washington, D.C., and Georgia.
One Republican strategist said there is a risk that independent voters may view Trump’s legal woes negatively in a general election, particularly if he is convicted. But in the meantime, the strategist said the Trump campaign has hammered home the idea among many GOP primary voters that there is a two-tiered system of justice, and that Trump is being unfairly targeted for political reasons.
The campaign is likely to deploy a similar strategy moving forward as Trump tries to solidify his support from various courtrooms next year.
Brett Samuels contributed.