On Wednesday, a judge overseeing Donald Trump’s fraud trial in New York grappled with a dilemma that the political community had long since overlooked: how to restrain the former president’s rage, outbursts, and desire to disobey all regulations.
Ahead of four criminal trials that will add a polarizing element to election year, Trump could have had a preview of what is ahead on an incredible day in court when he was required to take the stand and defend his actions.
In a dramatic shift from Trump’s usual power dynamics, the New York judge informed the once-most powerful man in the world that he was not “credible” and that everyone was subject to the law.
Due to his status as a defendant, Trump is unable to say or do as he pleases. This dynamic will not only affect the current trial but also appears to be the beginning of a trend as the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2024 confronts further trials in the upcoming year.
Trump may not have been deterred by two impeachments and a defeat in the election, in part due to his skill at inciting public ire, inventing other worlds, and obscuring the truth, but the fact-based setting of the courtroom perhaps may.
For the most part of this fraud trial, which might result in his namesake enterprise being prohibited from conducting business in New York, Trump has seemed to be smoldering. The former president has challenged Judge Arthur Engoron’s decision, which was made even before the trial began, that Trump, his company, and his adult sons had cheated banks and insurance companies by inflating the worth of their assets. Trump’s annoyance, though, appeared to explode on Wednesday in strange episodes.
First, in defiance of a gag order, Trump seemed to launch a fresh attack on the judge’s clerk. He told reporters that Engoron had a “very partisan person sitting alongside him” and that Engoron was quite partisan. After holding a hearing to further investigate the remark, the judge fined the former president $10,000 for violating a specific gag order that forbade him from slandering court employees. Trump refuted the charge and stated he was referring to Michael Cohen, his former fixer, who also sat next to the court when he testified against his former employer.
Trump has already been penalized for breaking the gag order. He received a $5,000 fine last week for failing to remove an offensive social media post that targeted Engoron’s cashier.
“Avoid repeating this action or it will worsen,” Engoron admonished, delivering a scolding that Trump, who has dominated every room for decades, has hardly heard.
Even if the crux of this lawsuit is that Trump’s riches may not be as vast as he says, the fines are insignificant for someone with his level of wealth. Furthermore, a former president accustomed to voicing his opinions is unlikely to back down over huge sums of money. Yet, it is only a small taste of the repercussions that the legal system may apply in a number of trials concerning his business, his attempts to rig the 2020 election, his concealment of secret records, and his payment of hush money to an adult film star. These trials will become entwined with his campaign for president in the upcoming year. In all ongoing legal matters, Trump maintains his innocence.
Later, after the judge declined to dismiss the case due to Cohen’s allegedly contradictory evidence over whether or not his former employer directed him to inflate financial figures, Trump unleashed yet another round of histrionics and stormed out of the courtroom. “I’m going,” said Trump as he walked out the courtroom’s big doors. Rejecting the request in its entirety, Engoron refuted the Trump team’s assertion that Cohen was the pivotal witness. “This case has enough evidence to fill this courtroom,” he said. (In a broadcast from the courtroom, CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Lauren del Valle noted that Cohen subsequently emphasized that Trump didn’t ask him explicitly, but he indicated it by using language comparable to a “mob boss.”)
Trump appears to be somewhat of a nightmare client for lawyers based on his practice of giving media ongoing commentary on the case, which is not aired. That dynamic could show up in his upcoming trials and get him into even more difficulty. However, his actions are in line with his strategy of influencing opinions through his notoriety and prominence. Trump is holding his own open trial in the hallway as attorneys argue the case inside the courtroom. “This place is being railroaded,” Trump declared on Wednesday. “This is incredibly unfair.”
However, in contrast to his days as a businessman and president, Trump’s tantrums are powerless to achieve his goals since legal limits and judicial norms are resistant to political and emotional arguments. According to CNN senior legal expert Elie Honig, Trump’s legal team is free to challenge Cohen vigorously during his cross-examination, but inconsistent testimony does not automatically result in the case being dismissed. “Let’s head home, it doesn’t mean the game is over,” Honig remarked.
How a political campaign turned from courtroom defenses
With his counternarrative, Trump is obviously trying to support his larger campaign strategy of portraying himself as the victim of a judicial system that President Joe Biden has weaponized to ruin his chances of winning the presidency in 2024. This has proven to be a powerful political tool as he easily leads the field in the GOP primary and has increased the amount of money raised for his legal costs. By delivering his thought-provoking one-liners, Trump also makes sure he is in the headlines and silences his opponents in the campaign.
Judges seeking to figure out how to deal with the rule-breaking Trump are not limited to Engoron. A similar issue is being faced by Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the federal election subversion trial in Washington. In order to shield witnesses, court personnel, and prosecutors from Trump’s social media insults, she had already frozen her gag order. She is now waiting on papers about his request to halt the order while his appeal is being processed.
However, Chutkan had informed Trump beforehand that there are restrictions on his ability to discuss a case since he is a criminal defendant. “He’s not entitled to say and do anything he wants,” Chutkan informed Trump’s attorneys in court earlier this month. In response to the disagreement, the former president’s team has stated that Chutkan and the Justice Department under the Biden administration are attempting to silence him in order to sabotage his candidacy for president.
In that regard, Trump gained backing on Wednesday in an unexpected place. The former president was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Washington, DC, branch in an amicus brief in which they argued that the scope of the order infringes on his First Amendment rights. Additionally, on Wednesday, prosecutors requested that Chutkan rescind the order, citing in their petition that Trump has already started making posts on social media about possible witnesses, citing his earlier this week Truth Social tweet about former chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Trump has proven that he is free to behave and say as he pleases throughout his well-known impunity in business and politics. And now his legal argument is built around this attitude of entitlement that defies convention.
For example, in the federal election subversion case, Trump’s legal team contends that the former president’s attempts to rig the results were appropriate for his official responsibilities and, as a result, he is not subject to punishment for actions committed while in office. Special Counsel Jack Smith has retaliated, claiming that this would imply that an incumbent president might act illegally in several ways and still be assured of an indefinite immunity from prosecution.
During his tenure, Trump often contended that there should be no limits on his actions. During a coronavirus briefing at the White House in April 2020, Trump stated, “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.” Additionally, in a 2019 address in Washington, he made up the assertion that he had absolute power because the Constitution was created expressly to forbid monarchical omnipotence. “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he said.
However, Trump’s flimsy constitutional defenses imply that even more lawlessness will result from his second term, which he has vowed would be focused on “retribution,” should he win the president again in November 2024. He has previously threatened to pursue his adversaries through the judicial system.
Former Wyoming Republican Representative Liz Cheney, who essentially lost her job for criticizing Trump, said, “There will be no guardrails,” to CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
For the time being, Trump is discovering that the judicial system has limitations. However, all bets are off if he wins the presidency once more.