Column: The hush money trial has only just begun, but it's not a good look for Candidate Trump (2024)

The first criminal trial of a former U.S. president hadn’t started this week, and already Donald Trump found himself behind bars. It wasn’t a good look for Candidate Trump.

Whenever he enters or leaves the Manhattan courtroom in the case of People of New York State vs. Donald J. Trump, Defendant Trump makes a beeline for the cameras, to rant about the goings-on. But to reach them, he must enter a security pen — like a small cell — formed by metal barricades akin to bike racks. They recall the barriers put up to keep his supporters from storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but which the rioters brandished like weapons against police.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

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Alas, this trial isn’t one of two that Trump faces for his role in the attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s election. Nor is it for his alleged pilfering of top-secret documents when he left office.


This is the trial that many consider the least significant of the four pending against Trump. Yet it could well be the only case for which we see a verdict before November. And the charges — that he falsified financial records to disguise hush money paid to p*rn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, violating election laws — are not nothing.

So the legal dangers to Trump are real, and when it comes to politics, the damage the trial could do to his candidacy is not just significant, it could be determinative.

Sure, he could be acquitted, though a mistrial is probably his best hope. And though a conviction would doubtless cost Trump support, as polls suggest, that toll likely would be marginal in a polarized electorate. Still, that’s where the 2024 election will be decided: within the margins in a half-dozen battleground states, just like in 2016 and 2020.


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And no matter the trial’s outcome, consider this: For perhaps two months, Trump is compelled to be in the courtroom much of the week — mostly silenced, diminished and at the mercy of a judge looking down on him from the bench. (“I won’t tolerate that,” Judge Juan M. Merchan admonished at one point Tuesday, after Trump muttered audibly about a prospective juror.) His swagger outside the court keeps his MAGA faithful in thrall, but Trump is in a general election campaign now: He needs to expand his support, not alienate voters by unpresidential petulance and his mere presence in the criminal dock.

The sordid facts of the case, involving payments to Playboy bunny Karen McDougal and Daniels, both of whom will testify, will be rehashed, likely with new details. That’s hardly the stuff for appealing to fence-sitting voters, especially women.

Though Merchan barred prosecutors from eliciting testimony that Melania Trump was pregnant when Trump allegedly had an affair with McDougal — too prejudicial to Trump, he said — nothing prevents journalists from noting that louche timing (as I just did), along with the fact that Trump’s alleged tryst with Daniels occurred soon after son Barron’s birth. (Given that history, who but Trump would shamelessly put on a show of paternal devotion to falsely claim on Monday that Merchan won’t let him attend Barron’s high school graduation next month?)


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Luckily for Trump, New York state law doesn’t allow video cameras in the courtroom. Nonetheless, the optics are terrible for the former president.


Let’s start with his appearances behind those jail-like bars. Alternatively, they call to mind a playpen, also an apt metaphor considering Trump’s penchant for tantrums and juvenile outbursts, which have earned him a gag order from the judge. Trump is barred from publicly criticizing witnesses, prosecutors, court staff, jurors and family members of Merchan and Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg.

Already prosecutors have asked the judge to fine Trump for violating the gag order. Most defendants don’t require such orders. For some wavering voters, it might matter that a candidate seeking to once again lead a nation founded on respect for the rule of law is so disrespectful that gags and fines are almost routine.

Merchan has permitted still photographers to snap shots of Trump at the defense table before the proceedings get underway. The former president, who markets his mug shot, is only too willing to mug for each of them.


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Yet the photos have been no more flattering than Trump’s performances for the broadcast cameras outside. He’s looking old, haggard and puffy, the bags bulging below his eyes more than ever. His scowling pose doesn’t convey the power Trump seems to think it does. He looks small sitting there, uncharacteristically mute and seeming utterly alone.

Courtroom artists’ sketches are no better, particularly the ones that show him napping. Indeed, the reports about Trump’s repeated dozing, from journalists inside the courtroom, were perhaps the biggest takeaway of the trial’s opening days and a politically fraught meme for the 77-year-old Trump, who incessantly ridicules the 81-year-old Biden as addled “Sleepy Joe.”

Late-night comics had a field day, er, night; political cartoonists were ruthless, and of course the Biden campaign was quick to post mockery of “Sleepy Don,” complete with a lullaby. The best line came from MSNBC host Chris Hayes: “If you call your opponent Sleepy Joe, you have one job.”


In short, Trump in just two days all but obliterated the edge he had over Biden on the age issue that so weighs on voters’ minds.

From the start, Trump has made his campaign for reelection an extension of his legal fights, all about him and his grievances. For a time, it worked; he rolled over his Republican rivals for the party’s nomination. Those days are past. He’s penned in. Whether he resembles a jailbird or a crabby baby, he’s hardly projecting the image most voters want in a president.


More to Read

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  • Letters to the Editor: ‘Meh’? Commenters should stop jumping to conclusions on Trump’s New York trial

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  • Trump trial: Why can’t Americans see or hear what’s happening inside N.Y. courtroom?

    April 16, 2024

Column: The hush money trial has only just begun, but it's not a good look for Candidate Trump (2024)


What is Donald Trump's educational background? ›

At age 13, he entered the New York Military Academy, a private boarding school. In 1964, he enrolled at Fordham University. Two years later, he transferred to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in May 1968 with a Bachelor of Science in economics.

Who is the youngest US president? ›

The youngest person to become U.S. president was Theodore Roosevelt, who, at age 42, succeeded to the office after the assassination of William McKinley.

How much is Trump worth? ›

Where did Ivanka Trump go to college? ›

What nationality is Donald J. Trump? ›

Donald John Trump (born June 14, 1946) is an American businessman, media personality and politician.

What number was Barack Obama? ›

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States.

What does Trump own? ›

Trump Organization entities own, operate, invest in, and develop residential real estate, hotels, resorts, residential towers, and golf courses in various countries.

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