Home U.S. Trump’s Trial Could Bring a Rarity: Consequences for His Words

Trump’s Trial Could Bring a Rarity: Consequences for His Words

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Trump’s Trial Could Bring a Rarity: Consequences for His Words

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“So that’s not true? That’s not true?”

The judge in control of Donald J. Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial had just cut off the former president’s lawyer, Todd Blanche. Mr. Blanche had been in the midst of defending a social media post in which his client wrote that a statement that had been public for years “WAS JUST FOUND!”

Mr. Blanche had already acknowledged during the Tuesday hearing that Mr. Trump’s post was false. But the judge, Juan M. Merchan, wasn’t satisfied.

“I need to understand,” Justice Merchan said, glaring down at the lawyer from the bench, “what I am dealing with.”

The question of what is true — or at least what can be proven — is at the heart of any trial. But this particular defendant, accused by the Manhattan district attorney’s office of falsifying business records to conceal a sex scandal, has spent five decades spewing thousands and thousands of words, sometimes contradicting himself within minutes, sometimes within the same breath, with little concern for the consequences of what he said.

Mr. Trump has treated his own words as disposable commodities, intended for single use, and not necessarily indicative of any deeply held beliefs. And his tendency to pile phrases on top of one another has often worked to his benefit, amusing or engaging his supporters — sometimes spurring threats and even violence — while distracting, enraging or just plain disorienting his critics and adversaries.

If Mr. Blanche seemed unconcerned at the hearing that he was telling a criminal judge that his client had said something false, it may have been simply because the routine has become so familiar.

Mr. Trump’s career-long habit of a ready-fire-aim stream of consciousness — on social media, on television, to newspaper reporters, to rally attendees — can now be held against him by prosecutors and a judge who has genuine power over him.

Prosecutors have asked the judge to hold the former president in criminal contempt for violating a gag order that bars him from attacking witnesses, which they argued was necessary given that his previous attacks had “resulted in credible threats of violence, harassment, and intimidation.” Justice Merchan’s questioning of the truth of what Mr. Trump wrote on Truth Social was one of several episodes that have brought into stark relief how talking constantly in public — which made Mr. Trump a tabloid fixture and then a reality-television star — has been working against him lately.

Eventually, the case could threaten not only Mr. Trump’s freedom but also the central tenets of a lifelong ethos ever-present in the former president’s patter: a convenient disregard for the truth, the blunt denial of anything damaging and a stubborn insistence that his adversaries are always acting in bad faith.

The consequences so far have been minimal. Prosecutors told the judge at the contempt hearing Tuesday that for now, they were not seeking jail time for comments that mostly targeted two key witnesses: Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer and personal lawyer, and Ms. Daniels, the porn star who claimed to have had an affair with Mr. Trump and whom Mr. Cohen paid $130,000 to keep silent weeks before the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump is less moved by threats of being fined. Still, when he faced a similar punishment in a civil fraud trial late last year, he slowed his attacks on a court official after the penalties mounted.

Mr. Trump explained his mentality succinctly while running for president in 2016. When the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, asked him why he responded to every single slight, the candidate replied, “I have to defend myself.”

Mr. Trump’s words — which helped deliver him to the White House through dozens of rallies and interviews — often worked against him once he was there. In July 2016, his public call to Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails from her private server just after he officially became the Republican nominee became a piece of the investigation into whether his campaign had conspired with Russians to help elect him.

Mr. Trump was also investigated for obstruction of justice as part of the broader Russian interference investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. One of those possible acts of obstruction was a series of tweets in April 2018 in which he declared Mr. Cohen, his personal lawyer who was under investigation, would never flip on him. (Mr. Cohen eventually did so; he is expected to be a key witness at Mr. Trump’s criminal trial, and prosecutors have suggested they may enter those tweets into evidence.)

As a sitting president, Mr. Trump was shielded from prosecution; he faced only a hefty report by Mr. Mueller.

Those protections fell away when he lost the presidency and left the White House. But Mr. Trump has not changed his approach to public life, and appears quite unlikely to ever do so.

Mr. Trump has long conflated legal problems with public-relations problems, treating the legal kind as easily spun away with statements or deflection.

Since the charges were unveiled in April 2023 by the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, Mr. Trump and his advisers have braided together legal and political responses. They successfully called on Republicans to defend the former president and baselessly maintained that Mr. Bragg, a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic county, was acting on orders from Mr. Trump’s political opponent President Biden.

They have also tried to use political arguments to justify Mr. Trump’s actions in the case. During the gag-order hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Blanche sought to excuse a collection of Mr. Trump’s verbal assaults on Mr. Cohen and Ms. Daniels. He argued that, in attacking them, the former president had been responding to political attacks by his adversaries — who just happen to be witnesses in the case.

The judge wasn’t buying it. He told Mr. Blanche that he was planning to ask, in every example, “What precisely is it that your client is responding to?” When Mr. Blanche did not have the requested information at hand, Justice Merchan reminded him of the purpose of the hearing.

“I am going to decide whether your client is in contempt or not,” he said, adding, “I keep asking you over and over again for a specific example, and I am not getting an answer.”

Justice Merchan has yet to issue a ruling on whether to find Mr. Trump in contempt. While prosecutors have argued that Mr. Trump is “angling” to be arrested, some people close to Mr. Trump insist privately that, for all his bravado, he desperately wants to avoid jail.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump has continued apace with comments that test the limits of what he can say. Two days after the hearing, prosecutors offered four new instances in which they said he had violated the gag order.

Two were during political interviews. One was in the hallway, right outside Justice Merchan’s courtroom, where cameras are stationed to capture Mr. Trump speaking before and after court sessions. There, Mr. Trump hammered at Mr. Cohen’s credibility once again.

In response, Justice Merchan set a new hearing for this week in which, once again, the former president’s statements will be in the spotlight: dissected, considered and, ultimately, judged.

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