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Politics

Trump Swaps Bluster for Silence, and Possibly Sleep, in His Hush Money Trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump isn’t known for letting slights pass.

Yet for weeks, the famously combative presumptive Republican nominee has sat silently — to the point of sometimes seeming asleep — in a sterile Manhattan courtroom amid a barrage of accusations and insults.

There were the times his former fixer-turned-chief prosecution witness was quoted calling him a “boorish cartoon misogynist” and a “Cheeto-dusted” villain who belonged in a “cage, like an animal.” There were the graphic details relayed by a porn actor about the night she claims they had sex. And there were lengthy descriptions of what the prosecution argues was an illegal scheme to conceal hush money payments to salvage his then-flailing 2016 campaign.

Through it all, even as he and his allies attacked the case outside the courtroom, Trump has spent the majority of his time as a criminal defendant sitting nearly motionless for hours, leaning back in his burgundy leather chair with his eyes closed. He ultimately chose not to testify in a case that made him the first former president in the nation’s history to stand trial on criminal charges.

Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for Tuesday, after which a jury will decide whether to make him the first former president and major party nominee convicted of felony charges.

FILE – Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan criminal court, May 21, 2024, in New York. Trump has spent the majority of his time as a criminal defendant sitting nearly motionless, for hours, leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, so zen he often appeared to be asleep. It is, at least in part, a strategy in response to warnings that behaving like he has in past trials could backfire. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Trump’s demeanor inside the courtroom has been a notable departure from the fight-at-all-costs persona that has defined him through decades of public life, fueling his transformation from a New York tabloid fixture to a onetime – and possible future – president.

And it has been at least partially strategic, according to people familiar with Trump’s approach who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case. Trump’s attorneys have warned him that behaving as he did in his previous trials — where he tangled with judges and stormed out — could damage his standing with a jury that is likely watching his every move and will determine his fate.

Acting out, he appears to have concluded, is not in his best interest, particularly as he faces the risk of imprisonment if he’s convicted.

Trump has also been able to speak several times a day to a gaggle of media camped outside the courtroom, giving him an outlet to vent his frustrations and get his message out. Facing a gag order that prohibits him from criticizing witnesses, his campaign has assembled a host of supporters — from vice presidential contenders to the House speaker — to deliver those attacks instead.

But the approach comes with its own risks. Some former prosecutors and attorneys who have been closely following the case said that while disruptive behavior could prove detrimental to the jury, there’s also a risk of Trump appearing too disengaged.

“What you want is for your client to look attentive, respectful and look like nothing is bothering him — but also not falling asleep,” said Randall D. Eliason, a former assistant U.S. attorney who for years specialized in white-collar crime.

EYES WIDE SHUT
Trump has repeatedly denied reports from journalists watching him via closed-circuit television that he is sleeping in court, insisting on his social media site that he simply closes “my beautiful blue eyes, sometimes, listen intensely, and take it ALL in!!!”

“No, I don’t fall asleep,” he told Telemundo Miami. “I sometimes will sit back, close my eyes. I hear everything perfectly. At some point I may fall asleep. But I will let you know when that is.”

Eliason said Trump’s demeanor was “definitely” something jurors would notice and could potentially perceive as disrespectful if they feel ”he’s acting like it’s not even worth his attention” or think he’s taking a nap.

“If it’s a tactic to try to make it look like he’s not concerned about the testimony, I don’t think that would play well,” he said. “I guess if he’s really just sort of listening with eyes closed, meditating or whatever, that doesn’t seem so bad. But I think falling asleep, the jury would find quite disrespectful.”

On the other hand, he added, “You don’t want him to get really agitated” as he did during previous trials.

Actually, sleeping in court would be highly unusual for a defendant.

“I have witnessed lawyers fall asleep, but never a defendant in a criminal case. Their lives are at stake and they don’t sleep in my experience,” said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who has been writing about the case.

“It’s possible it’s all an act to show: ‘Hey, this is bogus, I’m not going to pay attention to it,’” he added, but that would also be unhelpful. “Since the jury has to pay attention, that doesn’t send a message that you respect this whole jury process.”

‘YOUR CLIENT IS UPSET’
Trump hasn’t been entirely sedated. During jury selection, he appeared alert and engaged, and was at one point reprimanded by the judge for his visible reactions to one juror’s answers.

“(W)hile the juror was at the podium maybe 12 feet from your client, your client was audibly uttering something … he was audibly gesturing,” Judge Juan Merchan warned one of his lawyers in April.

“I won’t tolerate that. I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom,” he went on. “I want to make that crystal clear.”

Later, when Stormy Daniels was on the stand, Trump’s reaction to her testimony once again prompted Merchan to summon his lawyers to the bench.

“I understand that your client is upset at this point, but he is cursing audibly, and he is shaking his head visually and that’s contemptuous. It has the potential to intimidate the witness and the jury can see that,” Merchan said, according to the transcript.

But as the trial dragged on, and particularly during his ex-attorney Michael Cohen’s testimony, Trump most often sat in repose, leaning back in his chair, with his eyes closed, his lips pursed and his head tilted back or to the side. He shifted from time to time — sometimes to scratch an itch. Sometimes he appeared to doze off, his mouth falling agape as he sat for hours in the fluorescent-lit courtroom.

Other times, he re-engaged, sitting upright, chatting with his lawyers or scribbling and passing notes. He often leafed through stacks of papers, looked around the courtroom or sat upright, with his arms folded across his chest. He appeared especially alert and engaged during defense witness Robert Costello’s combative testimony, during which the judge threatened to remove Costello from the stand.

But afterward, he returned to the eyes-closed, head-back position that became his default.

PAST OUTBURSTS
It’s been a marked contrast from his demeanor at his earlier civil trials, when Trump stormed out of the courtroom, actively sparred with judges and made no effort to shield his disdain.

During his business fraud civil trial, during which Cohen also testified, Trump blasted a court clerk from the stand, lashed out at the judge and, at one point, marched out of the courtroom. The judge in that case issued Trump a $355 million penalty.

And in his E. Jean Carroll defamation case, he was reprimanded for muttering while she spoke, told the judge he would love it if he were removed from the courtroom, and stood up and walked out during Carroll’s closing argument, in front of the jury.

Saltzburg said he believes Trump’s behavior in that case is one of the reasons the jury awarded her a whopping $83.3 million.

“They wanted to send a clear message to him and they thought it would take a lot of money to do it,” he said.

In this case, said Jeffrey S. Jacobovitz, a trial attorney with extensive experience in white-collar criminal defense, Trump’s demeanor is “something that a jury would certainly notice.”

The perception that he’s been sleeping “is likely to have a negative effect on the jury,” he said, adding, “I think I would prefer angry Trump.”

___
By JILL COLVIN Associated Press

Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak, Jake Offenhartz, Jennifer Peltz and Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.

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