It is a mark of Donald Trump’s enduring grip on our nightmares that in the run-up to his court appearance on Tuesday the dominant conversational tone in New York wasn’t one of schadenfreude, but anger – and not exclusively towards Trump. On public radio that morning, pundits speculated that publicity around the case had re-energised Trump’s base.
I found myself muttering that this whole thing was a mistake. Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, had brought charges that were too thin, too obscure, too trivial in comparison with the real harm done by Trump. By summoning the circus back into town, Bragg had, effectively, said Beetlejuice three times, and now we would all have to suffer the consequences.
The first surprise, then, was how anticlimactic it all was. I don’t think anyone really expected busloads of Trump supporters to fill lower Manhattan, but the presence of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right congresswoman from Georgia, threatened to stir things up – and if there is one thing we know about Trump, it’s that you never know until you know.
As it turned out, scenes outside the court house on Centre Street had the comic air of journalists stepping over each other to seize on the few likely protesters, such as the guy with the “stop hating each other because you disagree” sign and – a gift – the guy with the massive flag reading “Trump or Death”.
There were surprises in the details of the unsealed indictment, chiefly that the 34 felony counts seemed to suggest a more solid line of attack through tax evasion than election fraud. But the most striking thing about Trump’s appearance on Tuesday was how boring it – or rather, he – was.
Leaving Trump Tower in the morning, the former president raised a fist in the air, and gave a muted wave when he entered the court building. But although there was a camera crew in the hallway, Trump made no remarks inside, no impromptu rallying cry or verbal defiance. That night, he delivered a speech in front of a crowd at Mar-a-Lago, and for once appeared less than Houdini-like in his powers of revival. His jaw was clenched. His lips were pursed. He was visibly angry. He was also very, very dull, deep in the weeds of his ongoing grievances.
What’s surprising about this is that it should surprise us at all. Trump is facing multiple legal challenges, huge financial strains, and a situation in which the only credible delaying tactic is a run for president. That this should cause the 76-year-old some mental strain is inevitable.
And yet, I think that at some point many of us stopped thinking of Trump as a person with access to any of the standard human responses. Of all his current difficulties, it may be that the two years of lean press attention, social media bans and waning interest even from his own supporters have weighed on him more heavily than his legal exposure. Nonetheless, on Tuesday night, he was not the buoyant, ebullient Trump I expected.
Or perhaps his performance edged closer to strategy. For all his unruliness, Trump’s self-preservation instincts are incredibly strong, and for much of the speech he avoided direct reference to the day’s events. In court, Judge Juan M Merchan had asked Trump to “please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest”, and, with a few exceptions – Trump insulted the judge and his family, and called the arrest “an insult to our country” – he abided by this, focusing instead on the FBI raids on his home in pursuit of classified documents.
As a result, for long, rambling stretches of the speech, it felt as if Trump had wholly lost his audience. The room came briefly to life when he did a weird impression of Letitia James, the attorney general for the state of New York, who is bringing a civil fraud case against him, calling her a “racist in reverse”. There were brief flashes of the old Trump in his reference to “this Jack Smith lunatic”, the special prosecutor investigating him for his conduct after he lost the election. The baffling phrase “more than any other nation times two” was very Trumpian and in praising his children – Trump had to double back to remember Tiffany – he said of Baron “he’s tall, he’s smart”, and suddenly the old buffoon was back in the room.
The crowd clapped, but Trump didn’t linger. He left the podium an aggrieved, unsmiling man who, giving millions of Americans more pleasure than might reasonably be expected on a Tuesday night, will have been informed that none of the major TV networks had broken into programming to broadcast the speech.
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