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    "The alternate reality Trump lives in is crumbling" with first criminal trial: ex-federal prosecutor

    By Chauncey DeVega,


    With a jury now impaneled, Donald Trump’s hush-money trial can finally begin in earnest. The outcome of the trial will impact not just Trump’s freedom but the outcome of the 2024 election and the future of the country’s democracy.

    Per New York state law, no cameras are allowed inside the courtroom. The courtroom sketch artists have depicted defendant Trump as bored, sullen, hostile, occasionally happy, and with a look of contempt and disgust on his face. When sleeping in court, Trump looks very tired and drained of energy, his mouth open and his head fighting against gravity. Trump is reportedly quite upset at how he is being drawn, Rolling Stone reports. “Trump has also privately asked people close to him if they agree that the courtroom sketch-artist must be out to get him," sources told the outlet.

    Trump’s attorneys, meanwhile, are still trying to stop their client’s first criminal trial by filing appeals for a change of venue because of supposed “bias” against their client, a claim the court has rejected.

    Trump, for his part, has repeatedly violated his gag orders by threatening the judges, prosecutors, district attorneys, witnesses, jury members, and other people who are trying to enforce the rule of law. Judge Juan Merchan has mostly been successful in trying to discipline the impudent former president, at one point commanding him to sit down in court like he was a disobedient dog.

    In an attempt to better understand what is likely to happen next in Trump’s first criminal trial such as how the prosecution and defense are going to proceed and what the larger strategy may be behind Trump’s acting out in court (Trump is likely attempting to get thrown in prison as a way of rallying his followers as a fake martyr), I recently spoke with Kenneth McCallion. He is a former Justice Department prosecutor who also worked for the New York attorney general's office as a prosecutor on Trump-related racketeering cases.

    This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

    Trump’s first criminal trial has finally begun. Where are we with the so-called “walls closing in” on Donald Trump?

    The alternate reality Trump lives in is crumbling. You can see it in his facial expressions and behavior. Donald Trump has been forced to partially subdue himself, which is not his natural instinct. He is not wired in such a way as to be able to remain quiet as a litany of accusations and evidence against him are presented. For example, the Sandoval hearing, which reviewed the numerous areas where the prosecution will seek to cross-examine Trump if he takes the stand, was very damning. It laid out not only the criminal and ethics charges against him in this case, but also the charges against him over the span of the last decade or two.

    How does someone like a mobster or politician or businessman like Donald Trump – who is also of course a former president – react to hearing the charges read against them in court?

    Different people process a trial differently. I was an organized crime prosecutor for many years. Once they've been through the criminal process, and perhaps have done some prison time, you somewhat get inured to it. If you are a gangster, you are actually proud of having done some prison time. You are proud to be an outlaw; prison time gives you credibility.

    Donald Trump is in a different psychological space, and a much more tenuous one. Trump is presenting himself to his followers as a victim, someone being persecuted. He obviously wants the world to remember and think of him as strong and resolute, and basically a good guy despite his personal peccadilloes. So, that self-image and definition of himself, which has been the basis for his popularity among many millions of Americans, is now being challenged. Moreover, Trump is in a setting that he cannot control. The judge and the legal process now have control over him. That is extremely frustrating for Trump. He's been stripped of his power. His diehard MAGA followers are still with him. But the optics of Trump in court are not playing well outside that die-hard group. To those people who are not in the MAGA movement, Trump looks like a mighty man who has fallen hard and will continue in a downward spiral.

    What role does Trump’s psyche and concern about his legacy play here?

    Trump lives in the present. But he is also very concerned about his legacy as an ex-president and more generally as a self-proclaimed successful developer. Throughout his life, he's been very vulnerable to ridicule. Donald Trump does not have a particularly thick skin. When he's been subjected to ridicule and laughed at, that is extremely emotionally and psychologically painful to him. Trump's ego is at risk now. This trial is over hush money and the cover-up regarding money he paid to reimburse his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. The whole scheme is so amateurish. It was not particularly well thought out. It was executed poorly and there is a long paper trail. Not only do I believe that Trump will be convicted in this first trial, but he will also be extremely embarrassed. What Trump is accused of here is so obvious. It is the kind of white-collar crime that the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has sent many businesspeople to jail for.

    This first trial is truly historic. It is the first time a former or sitting president has been charged with criminal offenses – in this case, felonies. How does that impact how the prosecution, the defense, and the judge and the court more generally are approaching the hush-money trial?

    For the prosecutor, this is not uncharted territory. Yes, Trump is a former president. But, under the law, he is just an ordinary citizen at this point in time. Once the public fully realizes that the emperor has no clothes and that Trump is just a bombastic charlatan, then everything can turn against him very quickly. I don't know what the Republican Party is going to do if he implodes over the next few months, which is what I believe will likely happen. They don't have a plan B. The Republicans have put themselves in an untenable situation, politically and morally. They are in danger of becoming a permanent minority party for the next couple of decades, comprised of angry white folks seething in their own sense of victimhood.

    Donald Trump is continuing to violate the gag order(s) placed on him by threatening and trying to intimidate the judges, prosecutors, district attorney, prospective jurors and other people involved in his trials. If he was a regular private citizen, he would likely be in prison by now. But could Trump’s behavior actually be part of a bigger strategy, where he actually wants to go to prison? Trump is very devious and was a student of master dirty trickster Roy Cohn. We can’t overlook that.

    I think that Donald Trump is probably trying to get himself thrown into prison or in a soundproof plexiglass box in the courtroom. This would enhance the narrative of martyrdom he is promoting, which resonates with his base. Neither Trump nor most of his die-hard base want to confront the stark reality that the problems they face are largely of their own making, and the result of a series of terrible choices made along with way. In fact, he had an exchange during the civil trial in New York before Judge Engoron where he was basically daring the judge to put him in jail. The judge said, basically, “I know you want me to hold you in contempt and put you in jail, and at some point, I'm going to have to do that, but not now.” In the current hush money criminal trial, there is a gag order. Ultimately, if Trump keeps violating it, there will be severe consequences, financial if not otherwise. But it's difficult because you can't really try somebody on criminal charges in absentia from jail. The optics do not look particularly good for the country if we have a Nurnberg-type trial with a glass or plexiglass cage for Donald Trump. It would look too much like one of those political show trials for opposition leaders in the former Soviet Union that led to pre-ordained executions.

    It's starting to dawn on Trump that this is all not going to end well for him. Trump may well just break out into a carefully calculated “unhinged” rant before the case goes to the jury. It reminds me of a basketball coach who gets himself thrown out of the game to inspire the players. If Trump was put in prison for contempt that would make his followers even more enthusiastic and loyal. It's a real tough call for a judge to make because you really need the defendant in the courtroom.

    If Trump were put in prison because he continues to defy the gag orders and to be disruptive in court, what would that actually look like logistically?

    Trump would be put in a gilded cage. He would be confined in Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago because the Secret Service does have an obligation to protect him. Trump would not be put in the general population at Rikers Island. Alternatively, Trump could be put in some type of isolated confinement. The Manhattan Correctional Center (MCC), where Jeffrey Epstein ended his life, is only about 100 or so yards away from the courthouse in Manhattan where Trump’s trial is taking place. Trump could be confined there and participate in the trial through a video link.

    Donald Trump is being very impudent and difficult in court. Sleeping. Glaring at jurors and witnesses. Muttering under his breath. He also had an exchange with Judge Merchan and had to be told to behave himself and sit down. Trump then stormed out of court. What are Trump’s attorneys likely telling him about his bad behavior?

    Trump's lawyers must be saying that 'you are only hurting yourself by acting like a clown in court and childishly acting out.' He is making such a caricature of himself that it is looking more and more like a "Saturday Night Live" skit. But Trump is not going to change. His lawyers know that. These trials are a marathon, not a sprint. It really is amazing that Donald Trump can withstand such pressure without having a physical or emotional meltdown. Two weeks on trial is going to seem like an eternity to him.

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