Trump’s ‘Al Capone’ Strategy Carries Risks in November
Two days after his victory in the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump was back in court today, testifying in the defamation case brought against him in New York by E. Jean Carroll, the writer who has accused him of raping her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s.
“I just wanted to defend myself, my family and, frankly, the presidency,” Trump said in his under four-minute appearance on the stand. He was responding to a question about whether he had intended to harm his accuser with his defamatory statements denying her allegations despite having been found liable in the civil proceeding for sexually abusing her.
And though the judge told the jury to disregard those remarks, Trump got his message across.
It’s a pattern Trump has stuck to for months: Far from playing down his many legal woes, he has put them front and center, often bragging (apparently falsely) that he has been charged more times than Al Capone.
He features his courtroom troubles in his stump speeches, portraying them as an effort by Democrats who fear they cannot beat him at the ballot box to weaponize the justice system against him. Casting himself as the victim of a witch hunt, Trump has highlighted his four criminal indictments in fund-raising emails. He revels in media coverage of his motorcade speeding to various courthouses. And his confrontational performances in front of judges and juries are calculated for maximum attention.
So far, the strategy appears to be working, helping to rally Republican base voters to his side in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But as he tries to shift into general election mode, it is much less clear that making his legal liabilities central to his campaign will be an effective way of building the broader coalition he needs to win in November.
The risks are evident in data points from the first two Republican contests.
Nearly half of those who voted in the Republican primary in New Hampshire said in a CNN exit poll that they would not consider Trump fit to take the presidency again if he were convicted of a crime. In Iowa, roughly a third of Republicans who showed up at the caucuses said Trump would not be fit were he convicted, according to an Edison Research poll.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll last month, nearly a quarter of Trump’s supporters said he should not be the Republican Party’s nominee if he is found guilty of a crime, a scale of potential defections that could be decisive in a close race.
In private, some of Trump’s advisers acknowledge it is not fundamentally good for him to attend his civil trials. But they say he sees himself as his own best communicator and defender. He wants to know he did all he could to make his case inside the courtroom and outside of it.
Trump repeatedly went from the campaign trail to the courtroom even during the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire. He traveled first to attend the closing arguments in the New York attorney general’s civil fraud case against him and his company.
Last week, after winning in Iowa, he flew back to New York to attend the jury selection in the E. Jean Carroll defamation case. He also attended her testimony, sitting alongside his lawyers and testing the federal judge’s patience by audibly speaking critically of the case in the presence of the jury. He returned today, determined to defend himself in his own words.
“This is not America,” he said, raising his voice loud enough for the courtroom audience to hear across the hushed room, as he departed after his testimony.
Both of the trials he has attended in New York are civil cases and therefore don’t require Trump to be present, as opposed to the four criminal cases, in which he will have to be in the courtroom for long stretches. Trump has lumped the cases into a giant, undifferentiated mass that he insists without evidence is the doing of President Biden. (The New York civil fraud case’s origins, it is worth noting, date back to the middle of Trump’s presidency.)
Out of court
Taunting E. Jean Carroll, which he has done repeatedly on social media over the last few weeks, doesn’t seem like an obvious way of making more inroads with independent voters who are wary of the dust clouds that follow Trump everywhere, or securing more support from suburban women, another group with which he’s struggled.
That’s also true of his election denialism, which he has discussed constantly, to some of his advisers’ chagrin, even as he faces a federal trial on charges he illegally tried to overturn his election loss in 2020. He dug in again about “cheating” in elections during his scorched-earth victory speech in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.
Trump has repeatedly turned political expectations upside down, and he has benefited from the fact that he is not viewed by voters through a conventional political lens. But at his own insistence, Trump is making an issue of accusations against himself that no doubt would have sunk any other candidate. Whether he can continue to make them a positive is shaping up to be one of the big questions of the looming general election season.
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Why is there no date for the start of the RICO trial in Georgia? — Theodore Kazmar, San Diego, California
Alan: That’s not entirely clear. The district attorney in Fulton County has proposed an August start to the racketeering trial. But Judge McAfee hasn’t settled on a date yet. Pretrial motions are still being argued and it’s possible the judge wants to complete that process before choosing a trial date. The proceedings have also been complicated by accusations from one of Trump’s co-defendants of ethical violations by the district attorney, Fani T. Willis, involving questions about her relationship with a lawyer she hired to help oversee the prosecution.
How trial delays could pay off for Trump
Trump faces four criminal trials this year, but delays are already underway. The odds are that no more than one or two will finish before the election — they may require a couple of months or more, and are unlikely to happen concurrently because defendants typically have to attend criminal trials in person.
And delays are a critical piece of the Trump strategy, which is to avoid a jury before November. Here’s how the scheduling could come together.