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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump’s trial is about more than sex and money. It’s about what presidents ‘can get away with’

Former US President Donald Trump attends the first day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 15, 2024.    (Jeenah Moon/Pool/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Jeffrey Fleishman Los Angeles Times

The adult film star. The betraying bagman. The brash billionaire. The plot reads like a ”Sopranos” episode, a shadowy narrative of a nation’s sins and troubling divisions, its characters converging in a New York courtroom where, for the first time in history, a former president will stand before a jury in a criminal trial.

Donald Trump is giving the country another unruly moment to mark. There have been so many over the years – the Jan. 6 insurrection, the failed pandemic response – that they seem to blur into one another, an unending spectacle of a reality-TV-star-turned-politician in an age of lies and recriminations. The hush money trial scheduled to start Monday probably will not change the opinions of Trump’s followers or detractors. But it will further incite the 2024 campaign and test the resilience of a polarized democracy.

“How this trial and [his] other trials play out will have enduring consequences,” said William Howell, a politics professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of “Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy.” The cases, he added, “will shape not just what future presidents will do but whether or not they’ll get away with it. It’s absolutely fundamental to democracy.”

Trump is accused in this case of falsifying business records regarding an alleged $130,000 payment in 2016 to silence Stormy Daniels from saying she’d had sex with him a decade earlier. His then-lawyer Michael Cohen – Trump has since called him a “rat” – said the former president directed him to make the payment that Trump then reimbursed, disguised as legal fees. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in relation to the Daniels money and served more than a year in prison on a three-year sentence.

The facts of the case have fed late-night TV riffs and AI-generated deepfake images in a surreal satire of our politics. Preliminary hearings have so infuriated Trump that his outbursts, including attacks on prosecutors, court staff and witnesses, led Judge Juan M. Merchan – whose daughter Trump has assailed on social media – to impose a gag order on the defendant.

Trump denies having had any sexual encounter with Daniels. He has called her “crazy” and “horseface.” She labeled him “tiny.”

Such is the wordplay of the times. The trial is the latest in the legal jeopardy, including 91 felony counts, facing a man who sees himself as unbound by convention. Trump has been found liable, in a civil case, for nearly half a billion dollars in financial fraud. He faces other trials on allegations of election interference that culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising and of taking classified documents when he left the White House.

He has been impeached twice. Yet he is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, a showman whose travails have emboldened a brand of nativist populism that has unnerved the world and turned the nation into warring camps.

The trial will unfold at a time when Trump has vowed vengeance against his enemies and joked that he would be a dictator on “day one” if reelected. He has long been enamored with authoritarians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has also increasingly tapped into two prominent, if dueling, American narratives: religion and the allure of the mobster. Many of his followers see him as anointed by God like the biblical King Cyrus who freed oppressed Jews in Babylon. At rallies, when mentioning his indictments, Trump – who recently began selling Bibles for $59.99 – compares his legal problems with those of Al Capone.

“If you looked at him in the wrong way,” Trump said last year in Iowa, “he blew your brains out.”

The national audience for this trial – a recent Gallup poll found that 75% of Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the country – couldn’t be more restless and divided. Trump has often alluded to violence and hate speech, and his rallies are a mix of militant fervor and sacred intonations. His base, mainly white, working-class and feeling neglected and forgotten by Washington, views him as a victim of a witch hunt. Democrats see him as a threat to civil liberties and immigration – a danger to the Constitution.

Left and right are disillusioned, angry and skeptical over whether the trial’s verdict will produce either justice or clarity at a time when mistrust of government is high and disinformation is insidious.

“As far as the effect of this on the American soul, that has already been felt in deep kinds of ways,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“There is a very discouraging sense that all of this stuff is further putting another shovelful of cynicism on the grave of the American experiment,” Thompson continued. “People on both sides of this argument have the idea that the old notions of justice prevailing and that in the end the truth will come out” will not be met.

Over the last year, Trump, with an entourage of SUVs and lawyers, has grown accustomed to courtrooms and to judges, some of whom he has ridiculed. In February, he was ordered to pay about $450 million in a New York civil fraud case for inflating his wealth on financial documents. In January, a jury ordered him to pay $83.3 million to E. Jean Carroll for defaming her after she accused him of raping her decades earlier. Trump has met the judgments with scowls, anger and astonishment, even as he has turned courthouses into campaign stops.

“This gives President Trump a global platform,” Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist in 2016 who was later convicted of contempt of Congress, said in a recent podcast. “One of the reasons President Trump is back and leading is because half of his campaign is these court appearances.”

Fox’s Sean Hannity, who has amplified the former president’s victimhood scenario, said Trump is being persecuted by a Biden administration that wants to “use our system of justice as a political weapon.”

The trial is expected to last weeks and promises testimony on finances, sex and celebrity. A judge has ruled that Cohen and Daniels – a documentary film about her has just been released – can testify. The backdrop will be New York City, where Trump, the scion of a real estate developer and a favorite of the tabloids, rose to prominence.

The proceedings, including the prospect that a pole dancer will defy a legion of election deniers and protests will erupt, will probably further entrench Trump’s supporters and opponents. But it is not known what effect the trial might have on ambivalent and undecided voters.

“A great quote from a Leonard Cohen song says there is a ‘crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in,’” said Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Films, a nonprofit that produces social justice documentaries. “Will this moment let the light in to see the true colors of one of the candidates? It has the possibility of getting to voters who don’t follow the twists and turns of politics, people who might say, ‘This is not moral, this is not right.’”

The trial also raises the matter of Trump’s business and political personas – few American presidents in history have been so publicly intertwined with their wealth.

The recent merger of Trump Media & Technology Group, which owns Truth Social, with Digital World Acquisition Corp. was valued at $8 billion. But its stock price quickly fell, losing about 50% of its value in a matter of weeks after news that Trump Media reported losses of $58 million in 2023. It was an indication that the hype around the deal was colliding with business and market realities. The question is how long investors will ride with a struggling Trump brand if his upcoming trials nick away at his political popularity.

Trump has taken to hawking “Victory47” cologne for $99 and “Never Surrender High-Tops” for $399. He has been incensed that his money – and tens of millions of dollars from donors – has gone to legal costs.

“I had to pay New York State in order to appeal a corrupt decision by a biased, crooked and highly overturned judge. It’s supposed to be the other way around – you appeal before you pay,” he recently posted on Truth Social. “Is a crooked New York Judge allowed to make you pay for the ‘privilege’ of appealing a wrongful & corrupt decision??? NOT IN AMERICA!!!”

Trump and his outrageousness are built for the voyeurism of our times, but Merchan did not allow video cameras inside the courtroom during the arraignment leading to the trial.

“In an odd sort of way,” said Thompson, “there’s something so 19th century about this story in its baroque complexity but also, in the age of instantaneous social media, we get the court appearances in pastels and watercolors of sketch artists.”

Three U.S. presidents have been impeached – Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Trump – but none has ever before sat at a criminal defendant’s table. In 1974, then-President Ford pardoned former President Nixon from indictment for “crimes he committed or may have committed” in the Watergate scandal that divided and bruised the nation. If Nixon were put on trial, Ford said, “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost.”

America is not tranquil now, and Trump faces four criminal trials. He has portrayed himself as a man persecuted by an unjust and evil government. He has told his followers – including elected officials in Congress and those on county commissions and town councils, that he is both martyr and savior: “They want to take away my freedom,” he said at one rally, “because I will never let them take away your freedom.”

“There’s a messianic quality to all of it,” Howell said. “When you think about Trump’s legacy, it’s about his ability in incredibly short order to entirely remake the Republican Party. That is an extraordinary thing that many politicians have tried but he succeeded at.”

“This isn’t going away,” Howell continued. “There are legions of folk who are ready to carry the mantle forward.”