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It Took One Day for Trump to Get in Trouble at His First Criminal Trial

In World
April 16, 2024

Read our ongoing coverage of Donald Trump’s first criminal trial here.

On Monday, People of New York v. Trump got underway in lower Manhattan. The substance of the day so far has been relatively routine—a final set of arguments over preliminary evidentiary motions and the start of jury selection. These last-second legal wranglings didn’t produce any major results, and still, signs were everywhere that the gravity of the situation is finally starting to hit former President Donald Trump, who is charged with 34 felony counts of filing false business records over his reimbursement of former fixer Michael Cohen in the Stormy Daniels hush money affair.

Still, even as he solemnly nodded his head to the judge’s questions about his understanding of the sanctions he might face—including going to jail—should he violate courtroom decorum or fail to show up in court during the pendency of the trial, he was already managing to simultaneously get himself in trouble. This was thanks to his Truth Social posts attacking witnesses in the case, one of which Trump seems to have sent out from the courthouse itself.

The combativeness that was on full display in his social media posts and campaign fundraising emails was not what we saw from Trump in the courtroom, though. He started the day chatting with his attorney Todd Blanche, and repeatedly offered pool reporters a thumbs-up as he walked in and out of the courtroom. Then, he passively watched the hourslong morning sparring over what matters District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office will be able to present to the jury as they try to make Donald Trump the first former president to be convicted of a felony in U.S. history.

Was he so passive that he actually fell asleep, as the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported earlier today? If he did nod off, I missed it from my seat in the overflow courtroom—where almost all of the media will be watching from during the pendency of jury selection. As Haberman noted while also watching from the overflow room, Trump’s head was slumping throughout the morning session. Another pool reporter suggested that his posture was more aligned with “dozing” than napping. That this became fodder for us members of the press is a good indication of the heightened tensions both inside the courtroom and around the country over this trial.

In more concrete news, though, the most dramatic moment of the day probably came when Judge Juan Merchan slowly and calmly issued Trump so-called Parker warnings, describing for him the potential penalties he faces should he disrupt or skip the court proceedings. “These Parker warnings take on special significance,” Merchan said of the historic trial he’s overseeing, before asking Trump a series of questions about his awareness of these limitations.

“If you disrupt the proceedings in any way, the law permits the court to exclude you from the courtroom,” and Trump can be sent to jail, the judge noted. “Do you understand?”

At each question, Trump barely nodded his head and, according to pool reports, said a “yes” that was inaudible from my spot in the overflow room.

“He was much more restrained than we’ve seen him,” noted Norman Eisen, a former White House ethics czar who served as a special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the first impeachment of Trump over the Ukraine extortion affair. Eisen was largely comparing Trump’s behavior to the civil trials he’s gone through earlier this year.

“He was paying attention when he got his warnings, and he had better,” Eisen noted. “He faces a genuine prospect of a sentence of incarceration if convicted.”

Whether he was heeding the warnings is already a different story. Prosecutors for DA Bragg’s offices pointed to three Truth Social posts from the past week to ask that the judge hold Trump in contempt for violating the order and fine him $1,000 per violation. Prosecutors also noted that their contempt request was filed before they had an opportunity to include a fourth one, attacking Cohen, made at 9:12 a.m. Monday. “It’s entirely possible that it was done while in this courthouse,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy noted.

The first post in question was sent last week when Trump thanked Michael Avenatti—the currently incarcerated lawyer who is himself convicted of ripping off his former client and the woman at the center of the hush money allegations, Stormy Daniels—for criticizing Daniels, Cohen, and the gag order itself. In the second post, sent on Truth Social on the same day as the first, Trump attacked Daniels for initially denying the story of the affair and the hush money payment before reversing herself. In the third post, Trump suggested that multiple witnesses, including Cohen and a former assistant district attorney, Mark Pomerantz, should be prosecuted instead of him. (Cohen has already served time in house arrest for his participation in this the alleged hush money scheme, but Trump says he deserves jail time for supposed perjury in Trump’s civil trials.)

Prosecutors did not include another recent post in which Trump attacked the judge’s daughter, sent after the judge issued a clarifying notice to his gag order adding family of court personnel to the list of people Trump could not target, even though it was posted weeks ago.

Blanche tried to defend his client by suggesting that the former president was only defending himself. The judge was not in agreement. “Point me to the portion of a gag order [that says] there’s an exception to the gag order if Mr. Trump feels he’s being attacked,” Merchan responded. Merchan set a hearing for a week from Tuesday morning to determine whether Trump violated the gag order. The prosecution is asking that Trump be forced to take down the posts in question, pay a fine, and get a “reminder” that future penalties could include jail time.

This is exactly the game that Trump has been playing in all of his court cases: seeing how far up to the line he can go without facing any serious penalty for his contempt of court. Merchan’s courtroom and a two-month-long criminal trial will be the ultimate test of his post-through-it strategy, which has kind of worked for him, but is likely to run out of luck soon.

“I think he was in contempt in all of the examples, but I also think that the tendency of judges is to slowly give a defendant enough rope to hang themselves on a gag order and on contemptuous behavior in general,” Eisen told me. That’s why the prosecution might be seeking just $1,000 per violation—for now, at least.

Even if Merchan is able to silence Trump’s postings about the trial participants, Trump will find a way to try to use his platform to turn the proceedings to his advantage. (Even before the jury was sworn in and the trial had officially begun, Trump sent out a fundraising appeal stating: “MY TRIAL JUST STARTED… I’m going to be honest with you Friend. I don’t know what could happen. I could be locked up for life.”)

Trump has said in recent days that he will testify in his own defense. But if the start of this trial didn’t make it clear enough that this was no longer Trump’s New York, a rally held by a caravan of Trump supporters in the park across from the courtroom did. As Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blared at full volume from the park’s speakers, the crowd of a few dozen Trump megafans seemed as docile as their hero. And by midway through the afternoon session of facing juror after juror, Trump was no longer giving the thumbs-up to the press pool. Instead, Trump was reportedly glaring at the journalists as he left the courtroom.

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