Donald Trump spent Monday in a Manhattan courtroom for the opening day of a $250 million civil fraud trial against him, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and the Trump Organization. When he emerged from that courtroom, Trump railed against Judge Arthur Engoron, against New York Attorney General Letitia James, and against the idea that he couldn’t have a jury for the trial.
“As you know,” Trump told reporters outside the courtroom, “we’re not entitled to a jury, which is pretty unusual in the United States of America. And I think it’s very unfair that I don’t have a jury.”
Trump attorney Alina Habba also complained that Trump wanted a jury. However, when she raised this issue to Engoron, she got back a simple reply: Trump’s legal team had never requested a jury trial. The general assumption has been that this was a screwup on the part of a legal team that has—so far, at least—failed to impress. But it could also be a strategy designed to give Trump what he’s always looking for: someone to attack.
During the lunch break on Monday, Trump stepped out to vent his anger at Engoron. As NBC News reports, Trump’s vitriol was extreme—especially since he was railing against the judge who is about to set the level of punishment Trump will face for his fraudulent manipulation of real estate valuations.
“This is a judge that should be disbarred. This is a judge that should be out of office. This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he’s doing. He’s interfering with an election, and it’s a disgrace,” Trump said.
Later in the day, Habba joined Trump in complaining about the lack of a jury trial, appearing on Newsmax to press the idea that Trump was being denied this option, and that it wasn’t a simple matter of checking a box.
And Habba is right to some extent. It wasn’t her job to check the box. The box was checked by James’ office. If Trump wanted a jury trial, his legal team’s job was to object to the form turned in by the prosecutor.
The general assumption has been that Habba, whose past experience doesn’t exactly suggest she’s ready to join the white-shoe elite, simply screwed up. After all, Habba also came to the New York courtroom brandishing a gaming laptop with an emblem that spiraled through colors while sitting on the defense table. (Gaming site Kotaku says Habba’s laptop sports an RTX 2070 GPU and an RGB light bar, so … pretty cool if you’re into “Diablo IV.”)
Had Trump wanted a jury trial, his attorneys needed to object to the bench trial proposed by the state, and request a jury trial. There’s no guarantee that Trump would have been granted that request, but they didn’t try.
Of course, that’s not the story that either Trump or Habba is spreading. They’re laying the groundwork with claims that Trump was denied a jury trial, that this was “very unusual,” and that it is unfair. This makes the whole concept seem like exactly what you might expect from Trump: a prelude to focusing the blame on the judge.
If Trump had to play to a jury, it might be a bit harder for him to explain to the American public how this trial ended with a massive fine and penalties that affect his ability to do business in New York. He couldn’t blame just one judge; he’d have to blame the judge and a whole jury.
Keeping the focus on Engoron (with the occasional shot at James), Trump gets to play his favorite role: victim of a system that is always unfair to poor Donald Trump, America’s only honest man. Painting himself as completely beset by radical Democrats, deranged prosecutors, and a legal system isn’t what Trump does in court. It’s what he does every day.
It’s also not so different from what he’s done through thousands of other lawsuits. Trump has enormous experience in bullying judges, belittling prosecutors, and evading charges. This is just the latest. The “no jury” bit is just another excuse for him to pound the table when he cries about how this was all so unfair.
But hey, it could also be a screwup. And honestly, when it comes to the result of the trial this time, it’s not likely to matter.
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