The twice-impeached sexual assaulter beloved by millions of the Republican faithful made a virtual appearance in a Manhattan court on Tuesday. New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan set forth his scheduling order for Donald Trump’s upcoming “hush money” trial, in which Trump is accused of providing illicitly funded payoffs to adult film star Stormy Daniels to hide his adultery from the American public in advance of the 2016 election. Trump has previously declared Justice Merchan “hates” him and has accused Merchan of “viciously” and unethically “railroading” Trump’s former CFO (and now convicted felon) Allen Weisselberg, in a case involving Trump’s corporate organization.
A component of the day’s proceedings involved Justice Merchan reading out provisions of a protective order sought by prosecutors in order to prevent Trump from disseminating evidentiary materials obtained by the prosecution, including, as reported by the New York Times’ Jonah E. Bromwich, “records of interviews with witnesses and grand jury testimony.” As Bromwich reports, Trump was specifically ordered not to disseminate such materials on social media or to news reporters. Justice Merchan made this ruling after he himself had received multiple death threats ostensibly prompted by Trump’s criticism of him in those forums. Prosecutors had requested the court to read the provisions to Trump personally rather than filter it through his attorneys. The judge agreed, but permitted Trump to appear via videoconference.
As Bromwich reports, Trump endured this process with some minor twitching movements, in which “he squinted and glowered at the camera, clasping and unclasping his hands, never keeping them in the same position for very long.” In Bromwich’s view, Trump “looked like a man unaccustomed to waiting.”
But Trump’s impatience aside, his more pained reaction came when Justice Merchan announced that the trial date would be March 25, 2024. This revelation solicited clear expressions of severe displeasure from Trump.
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As Bromwich observes:
[W]hen Justice Merchan mentioned the trial date, he immediately grew agitated, chattering at Mr. Blanche with his microphone muted, waving his hands and shaking his head. He then folded his arms in frustration as the judge reviewed the updated motion schedule that would precede the trial.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no public record yet of Trump’s virtual appearance, so these assessments are all subjective. But Bromwich speculates that Trump’s evident agitation stemmed from the fact that the trial date is now set smack dab in the heart of the Republican primary process.
The trial is set for three weeks after Super Tuesday, one of the most important days on the Republican presidential primary calendar. And the disclosure of the date came just a day before Mr. Trump’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, was set to announce his own run, highlighting the way that Mr. Trump’s legal entanglements could complicate his third campaign for the White House.
Yes, dashing to and from weekend rallies back to the courtroom will be undignified for Trump. Still, even considering the proximity of the trial to the Republican primary, Trump’s concerns may be overblown. After all, he may have to deal with even more serious charges in Georgia well before the trial in Justice Merchan’s courtroom. Those charges may well result in imprisonment, depending on their outcome. And Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case, which had appeared to be developing along a more gradual trajectory than the Georgia prosecution, now seems likely to provide serious fodder to Trump’s political opponents much sooner than anticipated.
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The bottom line is that Trump really ought not be so concerned about the potential drawbacks of Justice Merchan’s timetable. Yes, the optics could certainly be better for him. But by the time that trial rolls around, Trump’s voters (and in fact all of the American public) will have grown quite accustomed to seeing Trump in the dock. At any rate, after 2020 it’s clear that his supporters won’t care one whit, no matter what he’s charged with or convicted of.
Trump should be more worried, however, about the prospect of running his campaign from the confines of a jail cell, which is at least a possibility (if an unlikely one). Incarceration by its nature does not lend itself to photographic moments; the aesthetics of running a campaign from behind bars, though largely untested, may be murkier than he prefers. While facing a jury of his peers, Trump may still dress in his customary fashion, projecting at least some semblance of authority and refinement. Prison garb, however, is not as forgiving or flattering, nor are there the same opportunities for inspirational, photogenic poses. An air of defiance, for example, does not wear as well when projected from a tiny cell whose only accoutrements are a flat bed, a sink, and a toilet. The lighting is invariably substandard and there is often background noise. And it’s not entirely clear that a federal correctional facility would be willing to accommodate Trump’s timetable of campaign announcements, let alone a crew necessary to film them.
These are all theoretical problems at present. But they are all going to be issues Trump will be forced to address well before the 2024 election. Perhaps that’s what he was really agitated about.