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A day all about Trump: Mostly out of sight, but still ubiquitous

From the lofty chambers of the Supreme Court to the gutters of tabloid journalism, Thursday was, once again, a day all about Donald Trump. He was largely invisible, as he was sequestered in a courtroom in Manhattan. Nonetheless, he was ubiquitous. It is who he is.

Throughout his life, whether as a flamboyant developer, a reality-TV star or a politician who became president, Trump has always found ways to keep the bright lights focused squarely on himself. Good stories or bad stories, it never really mattered. What was always important was to dominate, to be the center of attention, to win the ratings war, to cloud out everyone else.

Rarely has there been a day that underscored that aspect of his being as much as Thursday. Both the justices on the Supreme Court and the jurors in the Manhattan courtroom were confronted with the alleged misdeeds of the former president. Nothing about either matter cast Trump positively. And yet it is not knowable today whether these proceedings will help or hurt his chances of being elected president again in November.

The nine justices on the high court were asked to answer a historic constitutional question: Is a president immune from criminal prosecution? In the Manhattan courtroom, the issues were far tawdrier, involving hush money paid to an adult-film actress over an alleged affair and the National Enquirer’s catch-and-kill practice designed to stamp out negative stories about Trump ahead of the 2016 election.

The justice system has put Trump in the dock, currently in Manhattan but potentially in three other cases and jurisdictions in the future. At the same time, he and his lawyers have tried to bend the system in his favor, legally and especially politically, with motions, appeals and demands designed to delay his reckoning long enough to potentially free him from prosecution.

Trump is headed toward a rematch with President Biden in November. But there is nothing normal about this campaign. For Trump, who is required to be in court four days a week as the New York trial continues, typical campaigning is constrained. But once again on Thursday, the campaign trail ran through the courts, and Trump sought to turn bad news to his advantage.

Down in Washington, if the Supreme Court was adjudicating a historic question, it was due entirely to what Trump did in refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election and the steps he took to prevent a peaceful transfer of power to Biden, which culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The former president has never relented in his false claim that the election was stolen.

The Supreme Court, under nine different justices, ruled in 1982 that Richard M. Nixon was immune from civil prosecution, based on a suit filed years earlier by a fired government official. But no president ever did what Trump has done, and no former president has ever been charged with as many felonies. And so the court, which is now made up of three justices nominated by Trump, will have to answer a question that has gone unanswered for nearly 250 years.

What these justices decide in the coming weeks will determine whether a president has absolute immunity from criminal prosecution, and if not, and the federal trial is allowed to proceed, whether it will take place before the November election.

Based on the analysis of nearly three hours of oral argument on Thursday, there seemed a distinct possibility that the court’s conservative majority would reject Trump’s broad claim of immunity but could issue a ruling that causes further delays in the federal trial, possibly until after the election. That would represent at the least a partial victory for the former president.

The high court has already been helpful to Trump in his efforts to delay. The justices might have simply let stand the appellate court ruling that Trump did not have immunity from criminal prosecution. By taking the case and waiting to hear oral argument until Thursday, the court has prevented a more timely trial on the biggest indictment facing the former president.

The conventional presumption is that, for a political candidate, no good can come from being criminally charged and forced to go through a trial in the middle of a campaign. Yet the four indictments returned against Trump did the opposite during the Republican primaries. His support solidified in the wake of the charges, and he easily dispatched his Republican rivals, though pockets of resistance continue to appear in state after state.

Until the Manhattan trial began, Trump had the freedom to campaign mostly as he pleased, with occasional appearances at court hearings. He used those moments to his advantage, and regularly denounced the judicial system as weaponized against him.

Now that the Manhattan trial is underway, he no longer has that freedom. Trump has lashed out repeatedly as he has emerged from court over the past week, risking being charged with contempt for violating the terms of a gag order. His petulance is on display daily. Will it hurt him? Not everyone thinks it will.

Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist and vociferous anti-Trump critic, wrote in the New York Times that it’s entirely possible that the effect of the court cases will be to boost the former president politically, just as the indictments did earlier. Stevens called the trials “a gift from the political gods” for a candidate of grievance and anger. “The trial will afford Mr. Trump the opportunity to define the essence of his candidacy: I am a victim,” he wrote.

Stevens offered another observation. Trump’s signature rallies have gone a bit stale, and cable news networks no longer cut to the routine campaign events as they did in the past. He does not always command the attention he once did. “By contrast, the trial gives Mr. Trump the benefits of renewed interest from voters and the media with no burden on his team to increase campaigning or produce a newsworthy event,” he wrote.

With the legal cases, cable comes to Trump. It started with the indictments, with cable channels following his motorcades and tracking his flights from Florida to New York for court appearances. Not that his team isn’t looking for opportunities for traditional campaign events. The former president was up early Thursday, greeting union workers at a construction site in Manhattan, where he got a warm reception amid chants of “We want Trump.”

And he is ever active on Truth Social, using it to lash out about the trial in New York, at the risk of being held in contempt for violating terms of a gag order imposed by New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, and taking potshots at Biden and other adversaries.

On Wednesday night, Trump drew a comparison between the pro-Palestinian rallies on college campuses and the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017 that was replete with antisemitic chants and resulted in the death of a young woman after a demonstrator drove his car into a group of counterdemonstrators.

He noted that Biden had said the Charlottesville event had propelled him to run against Trump in 2020, and he broadly criticized the current president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. “Charlottesville is like a ‘peanut’ compared to the riots and anti-Israel protests that are happening all over our Country,” he wrote.

For the next several weeks, however, those campaign forays will take a back seat to courtroom drama. For all practical purposes, Trump is grounded. Attention will focus on the trial in Manhattan as everyone waits for the Supreme Court to rule on the issue of immunity, likely to come near the end of the court’s term in late June.

Thursday was but one day in the long campaign, and it was about only one of the two major candidates. It was a reminder still of how Trump has distorted the lens through which politics is seen, and of what is at stake when the voters make their choice in November.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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