Trump's trial is about more than sex and money. It's about what presidents 'can get away with'

Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

The adult film star. The betraying bagman. The brash billionaire. The plot reads like a "Sopranos" episode, a shadowy narrative of a nation's sins and troubling divisions, its characters converging in a New York courtroom where, for the first time in history, a former president will stand before a jury in a criminal trial.

Donald Trump is giving the country another unruly moment to mark. There have been so many over the years — the Jan. 6 insurrection, the failed pandemic response — that they seem to blur into one another, an unending spectacle of a reality-TV-star-turned-politician in an age of lies and recriminations. The hush money trial that started Monday probably will not change the opinions of Trump's followers or detractors. But it will further incite the 2024 campaign and test the resilience of a polarized democracy.

"How this trial and (his) other trials play out will have enduring consequences," said William Howell, a politics professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of "Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy." The cases, he added, "will shape not just what future presidents will do but whether or not they'll get away with it. It's absolutely fundamental to democracy."

Trump is accused in this case of falsifying business records regarding an alleged $130,000 payment in 2016 to silence Stormy Daniels from saying she'd had sex with him a decade earlier. His then-lawyer Michael Cohen — Trump has since called him a "rat" — said the former president directed him to make the payment that Trump then reimbursed, disguised as legal fees. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in relation to the Daniels money and served more than a year in prison on a three-year sentence.

The facts of the case have fed late-night TV riffs and AI-generated deepfake images in a surreal satire of our politics. Preliminary hearings have so infuriated Trump that his outbursts, including attacks on prosecutors, court staff and witnesses, led Judge Juan M. Merchan — whose daughter Trump has assailed on social media — to impose a gag order on the defendant.

Trump denies having had any sexual encounter with Daniels. He has called her "crazy" and "horseface." She labeled him "tiny."


Such is the wordplay of the times. The trial is the latest in the legal jeopardy facing a man who sees himself as unbound by convention. Trump has been found liable, in a civil case, for nearly half a billion dollars in financial fraud. He faces other trials on allegations of election interference that culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising and of taking classified documents when he left the White House.

He has been impeached twice. Yet he is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, a showman whose travails have emboldened a brand of nativist populism that has unnerved the world and turned the nation into warring camps.

The trial is unfolding at a time when Trump has vowed vengeance against his enemies and joked that he would be a dictator on "day one" if reelected. He has long been enamored with authoritarians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has also increasingly tapped into two prominent, if dueling, American narratives: religion and the allure of the mobster. Many of his followers see him as anointed by God like the biblical King Cyrus who freed oppressed Jews in Babylon. At rallies, when mentioning his indictments, Trump — who recently began selling Bibles for $59.99 — compares his legal problems with those of Al Capone.

"If you looked at him in the wrong way," Trump said last year in Iowa, "he blew your brains out."


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