A judge presiding over Donald Trump’s New York fraud trial confronted a dilemma that the political world has struggled to address: how to rein in the former president’s anger, tantrums, and disregard for rules. This extraordinary day in court saw Trump ordered to testify about his conduct, offering a glimpse of what lies ahead as he faces four criminal trials in the coming year, adding complexity to the upcoming election season.
In a surprising reversal of power dynamics, the judge in New York firmly rebuked the former president, declaring him “not credible” and underscoring that no one is above the law. As a defendant, Trump is now constrained from acting and speaking without restraint, a dynamic that will extend beyond the current trial, setting a pattern for his legal battles as he positions himself as the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination.
Despite two impeachments and an electoral defeat, Trump’s ability to incite public outrage, manipulate facts, and distort reality has been largely unchecked. However, the courtroom’s commitment to factual accuracy may pose a challenge.
Trump has exhibited simmering frustration during the ongoing fraud trial, which could result in his eponymous company being prohibited from conducting business in New York. The presiding Judge Arthur Engoron had ruled before the trial began that Trump, his organization, and adult sons had engaged in fraudulent activities by inflating the value of his assets, a ruling the former president has appealed.
Trump’s apparent frustration erupted in unusual incidents on Wednesday. He seemingly violated a gag order by making a new attack on the judge’s clerk, labeling Engoron as partisan. In response, the judge called a hearing and fined Trump $10,000 for breaching the gag order, which specifically prohibited him from targeting court personnel. Trump, however, denied the accusation and claimed he was referring to his former associate, Michael Cohen, who had testified against him. Trump was previously fined $5,000 for an earlier violation of the same gag order, involving a social media post targeting the judge’s clerk.
These fines may be relatively insignificant for Trump, considering his wealth, but they serve as a reminder of the legal consequences he may face in multiple trials. These trials cover a range of topics, from his business dealings to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, mishandling classified documents, and a hush money payment to an adult film star. Trump denies any wrongdoing in all these pending cases.
In another dramatic moment, Trump left the courtroom in a huff after the judge refused to dismiss the case due to what appeared to be inconsistent testimony from Cohen regarding Trump’s request to inflate financial statements. The judge firmly rejected the motion, contradicting the Trump team’s argument that Cohen was a crucial witness.
Trump’s tendency to provide ongoing commentary to reporters, despite the trial not being televised, indicates that he might be a challenging client for his legal team. This behavior could persist in his future trials, potentially causing more problems. However, the courtroom customs and legal constraints do not bend to emotional or political arguments, rendering Trump’s outbursts ineffective.
Trump’s behavior aligns with his strategy of leveraging his fame and public profile to shape perceptions. While lawyers argue the case in the courtroom, Trump conducts his own public trial in the corridors. Trump expressed his belief that he’s being treated unfairly, stating, “We are being railroaded here.” Nevertheless, unlike his past as a business tycoon and president, his emotional outbursts won’t secure his desired outcomes, as the court’s rules and the law remain steadfast.
CNN’s senior legal analyst, Elie Honig, noted that aggressive cross-examination by Trump’s legal team is permissible, but inconsistencies in testimony do not automatically end a case. “It doesn’t mean game over, let’s go home,” Honig explained.
Trump’s legal defense strategy has evolved into a political campaign that portrays him as a victim of a legal system manipulated by President Joe Biden to undermine his 2024 White House bid. This strategy has been successful in the GOP primary, helping him amass campaign funds to cover legal expenses and maintain a strong media presence, diverting attention from his campaign rivals.
Several judges are grappling with how to handle Trump’s unconventional behavior. Judge Tanya Chutkan, overseeing the federal election subversion trial in Washington, temporarily suspended a gag order to consider Trump’s request to pause the order during his appeal. She previously warned Trump that as a criminal defendant, he has limitations on what he can say about a case, which Trump’s legal team challenged, claiming it’s an attempt to silence him and hinder his presidential campaign.
The American Civil Liberties Union and its Washington, DC, chapter surprisingly supported Trump in this case, arguing that the broad gag order violated his First Amendment rights. However, prosecutors requested Chutkan to reinstate the order, citing Trump’s recent social media posts about potential witnesses.
Trump’s history of acting with impunity, both in business and politics, is now shaping his defense in legal cases. In the federal election subversion case, his team argues that his efforts to overturn the election were part of his official duties and thus immune from prosecution. Special counsel Jack Smith countered this, asserting that such a stance would allow a sitting president to act unlawfully without fear of prosecution.
During his tenure, Trump often claimed unchecked authority, stating that “the authority is total” when one is the president and falsely asserting that he had the right to do anything as president due to Article II. Trump’s constitutional arguments suggest that a potential second term would be even more lawless, as he has hinted at using the legal system for retribution against his adversaries.
Former Rep. Liz Cheney warned that if Trump regains the presidency, there would be “no guardrails” in his administration. While Trump faces legal constraints for now, his future actions as a potential president remain uncertain.