NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s court appearances are no longer distractions from his campaign to return to the White House. They are central to it.
The dynamic was on full display this week as the former president and GOP front-runner returned to New York for the opening days of a civil fraud trial accusing him of grossly inflating the value of his businesses.
Trump was under no obligation to appear and did not address the court during public proceedings. But he nonetheless seized the opportunity to create a media spectacle that ensured he was back in the spotlight, eclipsing his rivals. And he once again portrayed himself as a victim of a politicized justice system — a posture that has helped him emerge as the undisputed leader of the 2024 GOP primary.
On Monday, the scene was much like the one that has played out over and over since the spring as Trump has reported to courthouses and a local jail to be processed in four criminal indictments. Once again, reporters waited in line overnight to snag seats in the courtroom; news helicopters tracked his motorcade journey from Trump Tower to the courthouse in lower Manhattan; and cable networks carried the spectacle live on TV.
His appearance Tuesday generated less interest, with empty seats in the courtroom and less television coverage amid a barrage of other news, including the historic and successful effort by a group of hardline Republicans to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.
Nonetheless, Trump’s presence demonstrated how deftly he has used his legal woes to benefit his campaign. The former president’s appearances drew far more attention than any campaign rally would have offered. And it gave Trump a fresh opportunity to rile up his base and gin his fundraising with claims that the cases he faces are nothing more than a coordinated attempt to damage his campaign.
“It’s a scam, it’s a sham,” he said Monday morning. “It’s a witch hunt and a disgrace.”
Throughout the day came fundraising solicitations tied to the proceedings.
While some rivals had once thought Trump’s long list of legal woes might dissuade Republican voters from choosing him as their nominee, his standing in the GOP primary has only improved since before the indictments.
While other politicians might shy away from drawing additional attention to accusations of wrongdoing, Trump took full advantage of the cameras.
He addressed the media assembled outside the courtroom multiple times both Monday and Tuesday, railing against the case and defending himself, turning the banks of cameras into a stand-in jury in his court of public opinion.
“Every lawyer would say, ‘Don’t talk.’ Every candidate would obey the lawyer. Trump just throws out the playbook,” said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer said that, for Trump, the lines between campaigning and the courtroom have now been erased.
“Every day is a day on the stump, whether it’s in Iowa, New Hampshire or in the courtroom,” he said, adding, “Every appearance is an opportunity to ring a bell, strike a message, say he’s the victim of a weaponized Justice Department and he’s the only one who can change Washington.”
The civil fraud case, brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, accuses Trump and his company of deceiving banks, insurers and others by chronically overstating his wealth by as much as $3.6 billion.
Judge Arthur Engoron has already ruled that Trump committed fraud. If upheld on appeal, the case could cost the former president control of some of his most prized properties, including Trump Tower, a Wall Street office building and golf courses. James is also seeking $250 million in penalties and a ban on Trump doing business in New York.
Trump spent most of Monday seated at the defense table observing the proceedings, at times leaning to confer with his lawyers.
The former president grew visibly angry during the morning’s opening statements, railing against the suggestion that he was worth less than he claimed and blasting both the judge and James. Trump sneered at the state attorney general as he walked past her on his way out of the courtroom during a lunch break, cocking his head toward her and glaring.
But by the end of the day, Trump’s mood had changed. He exited the courtroom elated, claiming he’d scored a victory, pointing to comments he said showed the judge coming around to the defense view that most of the suit’s allegations happened too long ago to be considered. Engoron on Tuesday downplayed the significance of his comments, citing his ruling last week that all of the claims were allowable under the statute of limitations.
Tuesday’s proceedings were more dramatic, with Trump and his lawyers repeatedly entering and exiting the courtroom for a series of closed-door discussions.
It was later revealed that Engoron had imposed a limited gag order on Trump barring him from attacking court staff after the former president publicly maligned the judge’s principal law clerk in a social media post. Trump was also ordered to delete it.
“Personal attacks on members of my court staff are unacceptable, not appropriate, and I will not tolerate them,” Engoron said.
Trump, according to a person familiar with his thinking, believes his presence in the courtroom is helping the case — even though the judge has already ruled against him. He is angry the state is trying to seize control of a business he spent his life building and is eager to be able to argue his side of the story as he prepares for an appeal.
The week has also shown how Trump’s campaign intends to balance court appearances with traditional campaigning. After three days in court, he’s set to return to Iowa Saturday and New Hampshire Monday.
“We’ve shown we can do both at the same time and be just as effective,” said his campaign spokesman Steven Cheung.
Still, Trump complained Monday that he’d “love to be campaigning instead of doing this.”
“It has been very successful for them because they took me off the campaign trail ’cause I’ve been sitting in a courthouse all day long instead of being in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or a lot of other places I could be at.”
That will continue.
On Feb. 15, he will have to make an in-person court appearance in New York ahead of a criminal trial in which he is accused of misclassifying hush money payments made to women during his 2016 campaign. His federal trial in Washington on charges related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election is tentatively set to begin March 4, his New York trial is set to begin March 25 and his federal trial in the Mar-a-Lago documents case is set to begin on May 20.
His trial in Georgia over his efforts to subvert the results of the state’s 2020 election hasn’t yet been scheduled.
He is also expected to return to New York to testify in his civil trial in several weeks.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.