One Week Into His Trial, Donald Trump Is Doing Himself No Favors With Jurors

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Donald Trump’s first criminal trial sped along faster than expected this past week, with a full slate of 12 jurors and six alternates seated by Friday. Slate’s Jeremy Stahl was at the Manhattan courthouse throughout the proceedings and will continue to report from the trial in the coming weeks. On Saturday’s episode of Amicus, he spoke with Mark Joseph Stern about what he saw as the prosecution and defense attempted to shape the jury in their favor. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mark Joseph Stern: Let’s start with a piece that Dahlia Lithwick wrote with Anat Shenker-Osorio contesting the misguided commentary that assumes this trial won’t sway many voters in one direction or the other. Dahlia and Anat argue that the trial might remind some weary citizens of what’s at stake in this presidential election. They write: “It changes the narrative from a tale of two old men, neither of whom they find appealing, into the possibility that a convicted criminal will be deciding which laws, if any, apply to him and also to everyone else.” Your thoughts?

Jeremy Stahl: So I’m talking from the perspective of somebody who has spent a week listening to potential jurors—who are also citizens and voters. And I’ve heard jurors talk their way through what this means to hold Trump to the same standard of justice as anyone else, to not treat him as above the law, but also to presume that he is innocent until proved guilty. You can hear them really wrestling with the seriousness and weight of the matter. They know how real this is.

The problem for the public, I think, is that there are no cameras in the courtroom. Most people are not going to see how serious this is. They’re going to rely on secondary descriptions from people like me, and I think just viscerally, it’s a harder thing to convey. I’m hopeful that it can be conveyed, and that people can appreciate it. This is going to snowball into a bigger and bigger story throughout the course of this trial; people are going to understand the stakes more and more, especially once there’s a verdict. But yes, it’s still a real challenge that it won’t be in front of anyone’s eyes.

No matter what, Trump is stuck in that courtroom for the foreseeable future. Judge Merchan is not letting him go, right?

I mean, Trump wants to go to Barron’s graduation. Judge Merchan said, “put it a pin in that.”

I’ve seen conservative Trump defenders say “that’s insane,” but we should remind people that this is how criminal trials work: The defendant does not get to pick and choose which calendar days he or she attends. You’ve got to be there the whole time.

It’s very typical. Also, Trump wants to be at the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments in his immunity case next week. His attorneys argued that he had to attend and that it could impact this case. Judge Merchan was like, “I don’t think it’s going to impact this case, and also, no, you can’t go.” He’s very terse, and will sometimes have a bit of pondering in his responses, but then when he decides something, it’s just boom, on to the next issue.

You and I wrote a piece about why the immunity case at the Supreme Court doesn’t even apply here, and why Judge Merchan refused to even consider it because Trump only raised immunity at the eleventh hour as a delay tactic.

That, and the crime itself is private conduct, right? It’s not even arguably presidential conduct. It’s all about a cover-up payment to Stormy Daniels, with whom he supposedly had this affair, and didn’t want voters to know about it. That has nothing to do with being the president.

So Trump is stuck in that chair. He’s trying to find a face that communicates “not guilty” to the jury, and a face that shows to the public—through courtroom sketch artists—that he is the defiant victim of a witch hunt. How’s he doing?

Trump is doing himself no favors with his demeanor in front of these jurors. He isn’t offering a pleasant demeanor to them, and sometimes he has been outright hostile and almost aggressive toward them. He’s making persistent eye contact, he’s looking at people, and then when he gets out of the courtroom, he does his normal campaign spiel: “This is a witch hunt. Everybody’s against me. Blah, blah, blah.”

Tell us what you’re watching out for next week.

Next week is a big week—the start of the trial. It will actually begin in earnest on Monday. We’ll have opening arguments from the prosecution, in which they lay out their entire theory of the case. Both sides have already started to do that in jury selection. But next week we’ll hear the full story that each side is going to tell, and we’ll learn who the first witnesses are. On Tuesday, we’ll also hear this question over Trump’s continued gag order violations. Judge Merchan does not appear inclined to be friendly to Trump based on his previous comments. If Trump continues to violate Merchan’s gag order, I don’t know what the escalation is going to look like. But it’s going to be something serious.