Donald Trump brings his campaign to the courthouse as his criminal hush money trial begins


NEW YORK (AP) — Former President Donald Trump began his day as a criminal defendant lashing out at the judge and prosecutors, casting himself as a victim and angrily posting on social media.

In other words: a familiar routine.

But inside the courtroom, which was closed to TV cameras, Trump was a different man — reserved and muted in a stark departure from his feisty approach to other legal troubles.

The contrast spoke to the gravity of his situation. Trump is now the first former president ever to stand trial on criminal charges and faces the prospect, if he loses, of becoming the first major American presidential candidate in history to run as a convicted felon.

Trump is accused in the case of falsifying business records to hide alleged hush money payments made to a porn star to keep her from going public during his 2016 campaign with allegations of an affair.

The trial is expected to last at least six weeks and Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is required to attend every day court is in session — a schedule that will dramatically alter his daily life and his ability to campaign in battleground states.

So Trump instead brought his campaign to the courthouse, delivering statements before and after the day’s proceedings, which he again cast as nothing more than a politically motivated effort by his rivals to hinder his campaign.

“This is political persecution,” he steamed after arriving with a phalanx of lawyers and several senior aides, but without his wife or other family members. “This is an assault on our country,” he went on.

Trump is already well practiced in the art of campaigning from the courtroom. In addition to appearances related to his four criminal trials, Trump this year voluntarily attended most days of his civil fraud trial as well as a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who had accused Trump of rape.

Those two trials did not end well for Trump: The former president was found liable in both cases, and now owes over half a billion dollars, including interest.

During those hearings, Trump was often admonished by the judges, who instructed him to be quiet or answer questions more succinctly. At one point, the judge in the Carroll suit threatened to kick Trump out of the courtroom for speaking loudly. Another day he stormed out. Trump also openly sparred with the judge in his civil fraud case, including from the witness stand.

Such behavior would not be tolerated in a criminal courtroom and Judge Juan Merchan made clear Trump could be sent to jail and prosecuted separately if he were to engage in such disruptive behavior.

On Monday, Trump did not.

At times, he was seen whispering and passing notes with Todd Blanche, his lead attorney. But during other stretches, Trump slouched forward, casting his gaze toward the ceiling, or leaned back in his chair with his arms folded and his eyes closed.

Every movement was memorialized by a small pool of reporters inside. As he entered the courtroom, Trump “paused for a split second” and “licked his lips” before walking up the courtroom’s center aisle. When he was introduced as the defendant, Trump turned and gave prospective jurors “a little tight-lipped smirk.” Later, when he exited the courtroom for a break, Trump glared at a New York Times reporter who earlier had reported Trump had fallen asleep in his chair.

While his body language was carefully parsed, he was seen more than heard.

During the first day of his trial, Trump said just five words on the record — “Yes” once, and “Yes, sir” twice — as he was read his so-called “Parker warnings” informing him that his right to be present at the trial could be revoked if he acted out and that he could be sent to jail for disruptive behavior.

It remains unclear how long Trump’s restraint will last as the trial drags on.

The sterile, fluorescent-lit courtroom is a world away from the gilded Mar-a-Lago club where he has taken up residency in his post-presidential life. There he is surrounded by doting staff and ardent supporters who deliver standing ovations every night as he enters the dining room.

In the courtroom, Trump was introduced to jurors not as president — as his aides still call him — but “Mr. Donald J. Trump” — and faced restraints, including the prospect that he might not be granted permission to attend his youngest son’s high school graduation.

The judge has not ruled on the matter, but did bar Trump from traveling to Washington next Thursday, when the Supreme Court will take up his argument that, as a former president, he is immune from prosecution.

“We think that it is important for the court to remind Mr. Trump that he is a criminal defendant and that he is under the court’s supervision,” one prosecutor, Christopher Conroy, said.

With Trump stuck in New York for the foreseeable future, aides have been planning rallies and other political events on weekends and on Wednesdays, when court is not supposed to be in session. Merchan said Monday that Wednesdays could be added if he trial falls behind schedule.

Aides are also considering possible events around New York after court ends for the day. Trump has often talked about wanting to campaign in his home state, even though New York remains overwhelmingly Democratic.

He is also expected continue to speak from the courthouse and hold press conferences to spin each day’s proceedings, as he has in his other trials.

While Trump has complained about being taken off the campaign trail, he has been keeping a relatively light schedule of public events since he locked up the GOP nomination last month, with most of his rallies scheduled on weekends anyway. Instead, he has been focused on fundraising as he tries to close the gap with his Democratic rival, President Joe Biden.

He is also expected to rely more heavily on surrogates. On Monday, allies including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Rep. Byron Donalds — all potential vice presidential or cabinet picks — fanned out across cable networks to blast the case.

Trump’s indictments proved beneficial during the primaries, helping him rake in tens of millions of dollars from angry supporters and denying his GOP rivals the media spotlight as they were trying to gain traction.

It’s unclear, however, how a criminal trial and possible conviction resonate with the broader general election audience, which includes more moderate and independent voters that could decide the race.

Half of Americans say they would consider Trump unfit to be president if he is convicted in the case, according to new AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

But many are also skeptical he can get a fair shake from jurors selected in the cases. The poll found just 2 in 10 U.S. adults are extremely or very confident jurors can be fair and impartial when evaluating the former president. About 4 in 10 are not very or not confident at all

The details of the case are salacious — involving a porn star, tabloids and hush money payments. But the case is widely see as posing less of a legal risk to Trump than his other cases, which accuse him of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election and of charges under the Espionage Act over his hoarding of classified documents that could lead to serious jail time.

But the hush money case could be the only one that makes it to trial before November’s vote.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, ignored Monday’s proceedings as his aides seek to avoid the appearance of judicial interference.

Campaign officials said Monday that they will instead focus on continuing to present a political split-screen between the two men, with the president focused on governing and Trump focused on himself.

That contrast was especially striking this weekend, as Iran launched an attack against Israel and Biden worked to prevent a wider Middle East escalation, speaking by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

He’ll spend the week campaigning in battleground Pennsylvania, with events planned in Scranton, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as Trump remains in court.

___ Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Washington and Liset Cruz in New York contributed to this report.

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