Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York has definitely gotten under his skin. Yet he was far calmer at his arraignment in June on 30-plus counts of unlawfully retaining classified documents. So, why is he stressing over his fraud prosecution?
Part of the reason is image. Trump’s self concept and public persona alike rest on his King of All Real Estate construct. Although New York Attorney General Letitia James has already exposed how much of it is a fiction, the trial will methodically unspool his legend over several weeks or months, witness by witness, email by email, spreadsheet by spreadsheet.
But it’s more than that. The remedies the AG is seeking — which the former president himself acknowledges constitutes a sort of “corporate death penalty” — are the only ones he can’t campaign away.
If restored to the presidency, he can pardon himself for his alleged federal crimes. He can also arguably force the Manhattan and Fulton County district attorneys, who might not be able to try their cases against him before the 2024 election, to stop on the ground that prosecuting a sitting president is constitutionally verboten.
But the only way out of James’ civil suit is through it (and then appeals). And before then, the court could impose serious penalties: temporary bars on acquiring New York real property and borrowing from any lender registered in the state; permanent bars on serving as an officer or director of any company in the state; an independent monitor to direct (and correct) all financial reporting and controls; even a potential receiver to oversee the unwinding of his metaphorical trophy case — and with that person’s prospective appointment, even the possible liquidation of his properties.
And that’s before we get to any disgorgement of the profits from his fraud, which the AG estimates at “at least $250 million.” Collectively, for Trump, that smorgasbord of potential remedies could be worse for him than any threat of prison.
The other potential explanation for Trump’s pique, however, is that Trump is actually on trial. James isn’t the first plaintiff to force Trump to trial. Author E. Jean Carroll, who won a jury trial against Trump on her sexual assault and defamation claims last May, bears that distinction — but James’ trial is the first he has attended. And with trial attendance comes its own psychic toll.
Trump may have believed that staring down, gesturing at, and otherwise attempting to demean and discredit James, and then his former accountant Donald Bender, in person, would be satisfying or perhaps politically advantageous. And the breathless media coverage of his body language, hallway press conferences, and even what he ate for lunch yesterday suggests he would have been right — at least in part.
Yet that discounts what it might feel like for Trump to see and hear the evidence. Watching prosecutor Kevin Wallace highlight Trump’s Sharpied signature on his statements of financial condition or hearing Bender clearly testify that at no time did Mazars undertake to verify the data provided by the Trump Organization or even assure its compliance with generally accepted accounting principles clearly ruffled Trump. And that this could be the next several weeks of his life might just be sinking in.