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Opening statements to show the stark personal and political stakes of Trump’s first criminal trial


Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump was once, and may soon be again, the most powerful man in the world. But on Monday, his diminished reality as a criminal defendant will become clear in humbling fashion during opening statements in his first criminal trial.

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee has long chafed at the constraints of the law, the Constitution and general decorum as he’s presented himself as an omnipotent force throughout his business and political career. But with jury selection now complete in his hush money trial in Manhattan, Trump’s fate is in the hands of prosecutors, his attorneys, a judge and 12 people, who, according to bedrock principles of the legal system, are regarded as peers of the ex-president. Nothing is more antithetical to Trump’s lifelong operating assumption that because of who he is, he is immune from such accountability.

Just over six months from the election that could see him restored to the White House, Trump has little ability to dictate action in proceedings in which his liberty may be at stake. His normal weapons of histrionics, obfuscation and intimidation have no currency inside a courtroom. The fact that he is compelled to be in court four days a week for multiple weeks is also a serious inconvenience to the Republican candidate. This constraint was exacerbated on Saturday, one of the few windows to get out on the campaign trial, when his rally in North Carolina – a swing state that President Joe Biden is trying to flip – was canceled owing to a dangerous storm.

Regardless of its outcome, this trial – and the way it’s affecting Trump’s schedule and demeanor – is underscoring how the presumptive GOP nominee is like no other presidential candidate in history. Whether or not he’s a convicted felon by Election Day, voters will be reminded of questions around his character and his many legal entanglements – with three more criminal cases looming, all in which he’s pleaded not guilty. And while Trump has used a narrative of victimhood to great success in GOP primaries, it remains to be seen how that argument lands with a broader electorate.

Trump insists he will testify

Trump’s unaccustomed loss of his capacity to control events may be one reason why he insists he will testify in the trial even though it might be injurious to his case. He’s already seeking to devalue the prosecution in the minds of voters who will be charged in November with deciding whether they want him again as their president.

“The trial starts on Monday, which is long before a lot of people thought. The judge wants this to go as fast as possible. That’s for his reasons, not for my reasons,” Trump fumed outside the courtroom Friday. Until now, he’s found success in launching endless litigation to create delays – a legal strategy that’s still slowing down the three other criminal cases against him.

The ex-president’s remarks Friday followed a contentious procedural hearing in which prosecutors and defense attorneys haggled over the evidence and past alleged misdeeds that could be brought up under cross-examination if Trump testifies. The process, known as a Sandoval hearing, offered the ex-president a glimpse of personal and unflattering revelations that the trial could dredge up.

Criminal defense attorney Stacey Schneider told CNN that hearing details of past cases, including Trump’s losses in a defamation case to the writer E. Jean Carroll and the massive verdict against him in a New York civil fraud trial, had been an unpleasant experience. “I think there is an emotional tilt to what the president was dealing with just a few minutes before he came out with that statement,” Schneider said Friday. “Defendants coming out of a Sandoval hearing are not pleased; it’s just the nature of the hearing. It’s the worst preview of what could come if you take the stand. It’s rattling. I think he was rattled.”

The ex-president’s fixation on his situation barely eased over the weekend. He issued a stream of angry Truth Social posts focusing on his claim that as an ex-president he’s immune from prosecution for acts in office. That case will be heard by the Supreme Court in oral arguments on Thursday. The matter focuses primarily on his federal election interference case but also has a bearing on the hush money matter since some conduct allegedly took place when he was in the Oval Office. “Of course I was entitled, as President of the United States and Commander in Chief, to Immunity,” Trump wrote in one of the Saturday posts.

A case dating to the 2016 election

The Manhattan trial arises from a hush money payment to former adult-film star Stormy Daniels, which prosecutors allege was made to cover up an affair to mislead voters in the 2016 election. Trump denies any affair and has pleaded not guilty to charges of falsifying business records as part of the scheme.

The trial is expected to be a personally testing experience for Trump – not least because likely witnesses include former associates or friends whose testimony the ex-president is likely to view as a betrayal. They include his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen and David Pecker, the former chairman of American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer. Pecker will be the first witness called by the district attorney’s office, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Prosecutors have declined to offer the defense the courtesy of full witness lists before each day of the trial, arguing that Trump’s social media attacks could put those set to testify at risk and prejudice the case. About their offer to hand over the name of the first witness by Sunday, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass had warned, “Should that be tweeted, it will be the last time.” Judge Juan Merchan has declined to force prosecutors to give advance notice of witnesses, especially with a contempt hearing scheduled for Tuesday over claims Trump violated his gag order with social media posts.

A grave national moment

Prosecutors in the case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg must prove only Trump’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in the courtroom. The jurors have been extensively cross-examined to ensure they make their judgment based on the law and the evidence rather than the political overtones of the case. Yet the backdrop of an approaching election and the identity of the defendant mean there is national scrutiny on what appears, in essence, to be a fairly simple case about business records.

There are, therefore, implicit questions for Bragg over the strength and advisability of a case that has made Trump the first former president to go on trial at the same time as he’s trying to get his job back. The principle that every American is equal under the law is a central issue here.

Trump is baselessly arguing that he’s part of an orchestrated campaign of legal weaponization and victimization by the White House to thwart his 2024 bid. But even though there’s no evidence Biden has had any involvement in Bragg’s case, some voters may perceive this case as simply the presumptive GOP nominee being pursued by a Democratic prosecutor. Furthermore, for many voters, events arising from an election eight years ago seem remote, especially since allegations of Trump’s tawdry behavior have been well aired by now. There’s also a widely held sense that the allegations in the Manhattan trial are less serious than those facing Trump in his other three criminal indictments. Those cases, which cover efforts to subvert the 2020 election and his hoarding of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, have grave implications for democracy and the office of the presidency.

Republicans seek to shield Trump politically from his legal plight

Even before Trump’s daily outside-the-courtroom rants to the camera, Americans were polarized over his situation. The idea that he’s a victim of political persecution enjoys far greater acceptance outside elite political and media circles on the coasts and in the cities – even if it is not supported by the facts. In nine years on the political stage, Trump has tapped into and worsened widespread mistrust of the country’s institutions among many voters, so it’s less of a leap for him to portray this case as corrupt.

The political case against the prosecutions was laid out by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, one of a number of Trump surrogates who may be auditioning for his vice-presidential nomination in TV appearances in his defense.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous that they have waited years to bring these types of charges against Donald Trump,” Noem told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday. “If they wanted to make these kinds of charges against him, they should have done it years ago, when this happened. To do it conveniently during a presidential election, when he’s campaigning to return to the White House, I think proves that this is all politically motivated.”

While Trump is barred by the partial gag order from assailing witnesses, the restriction does not apply to his supporters. Noem took a chance to attack Cohen, who served time in prison after being convicted on tax charges, lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws.

Despite endless speculation, there is no way to know how voters – especially those in critical swing states – might respond to a conviction of Trump in this case, or in the other matters that look increasingly unlikely to come to trial before the election. In a New York Times/Siena poll released earlier this month, 46% of likely voters thought Trump should be found guilty in the hush money trial, while 37% thought he should not be. Attitudes about the trial largely followed party lines in the poll, which was conducted before jury selection began.

While most of the pretrial focus has been on a possible conviction, an acquittal of the presumptive GOP nominee could also have unpredictable political consequences in a race that a new CNN Poll of Polls on Sunday showed as a virtual dead heat between the previous president and the current one. But Noem rehearsed a political argument that Trump and his associates will be seeking to land as the trial goes ahead. “I’m walking around this state and talking to people, talking to people across the country, they don’t even know which trial this is,” Noem said. “What they really care about is that they’re trying to figure out how to pay their gas bills. They’re trying to figure out how to pay their electricity and put food on the table for their kids.”

The South Dakota governor’s downplaying of the allegations against Trump also ignores the extraordinary historic reality of an ex-president facing multiple criminal trials. But the deeply consequential political and personal stakes for the former president will become even clearer when the first trial begins for real on Monday.

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