CULTURE

The Donald Trump Doom Loop

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At Donald Trump’s first criminal arraignment, in April, the security measures were out of a Hollywood action movie. Several blocks surrounding the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse were closed off, as were entire floors of the building itself. Lower Manhattan was flooded with police. A few days before the hearing, Trump had warned of “potential death and destruction” if he was charged—in this case, for paying hush money to a porn star before the 2016 election. Inside the courtroom, the atmosphere was so tense that I half expected the defendant to be wheeled into the courtroom on a dolly while wearing a straitjacket, Hannibal Lecter-style. Armed law-enforcement agents were stationed at the end of each row, keeping watch over the few reporters allowed in the room, many of whom had begun waiting in a line outside the courthouse some twenty-four hours before. Politico: “It’s uncharted territory for the legal system, the government and the country.” The Associated Press: “The historic indictment of former President Donald Trump thrust the 2024 presidential election into uncharted territory.” CNN: “The decision is sure to send shockwaves across the country, pushing the American political system . . . into uncharted waters.” When Trump finally appeared in the courtroom, even he seemed unsure of himself: he walked slowly to the defense table, his big red tie swinging, and he answered the judge’s questions in subdued monosyllables.

This past Tuesday, Trump appeared yet again in a Manhattan courtroom, for the first day of a lawsuit brought against him by the writer E. Jean Carroll. The atmosphere outside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse, on Pearl Street, was positively permissive by the standards of post-9/11 New York City; a few extra cops and some metal barriers were all that had been deemed necessary. I strolled in about an hour before Trump’s appearance, and joined a line mostly comprising members of the public reporting for jury duty. Save for a second metal detector set up outside Judge Lewis Kaplan’s courtroom, it was business as usual in the courthouse. Thoroughly charted territory, and waters. Trump has had that effect, over and over again, turning the unthinkable into the ordinary.

In the Carroll case, it was literally déjà vu. Last spring, Kaplan presided over an earlier Carroll lawsuit against Trump. A nine-person jury unanimously found that Trump had sexually assaulted Carroll in a dressing room of a midtown Manhattan department store, in 1996, and that he had defamed her after she published an account of the assault in New York magazine, in 2019. “Con job,” he’s called her. “Whack job.” Several times, he suggested that she was too ugly for him to assault, and that he’d never met her, even though Carroll’s lawyers found a black-and-white photograph of Trump and Carroll making animated small talk at a black-tie event around 1987. The jury ultimately awarded Carroll five million dollars in damages.

For complicated legal reasons, Carroll’s second case against Trump, which had been filed earlier than the sexual-assault case, took several years longer to reach the trial phase. In a pretrial order, Kaplan indicated that this case would not be a “do-over” of the earlier case—that Trump assaulted and defamed Carroll were established facts, not up for dispute again. When several dozen prospective jurors were brought into his courtroom on Tuesday morning, Kaplan told them that all they would be asked to do on a jury was consider what amount of damages to award Carroll for statements that Trump made about her after her account of the assault ran in New York. “Having heard what you have heard about this case so far, would you be unable to give both sides a fair trial?” Kaplan asked. Only three jurors put up their hands, to indicate that they’d have trouble being impartial.

One difference between the first Carroll case and the second one is that Trump showed up for the second one, at least for a few hours on Tuesday. He sat impassively beside his lawyers as one, Alina Habba, argued with Kaplan about whether the case would be adjourned so that Trump could be at his mother-in-law’s funeral on Thursday, in Florida. And he seemed to take an interest in jury selection. When Kaplan asked the prospective jurors if they believed the 2020 election was stolen, three raised their hands—and so did Trump. While he sat in the courtroom, his account on his proprietary social-media site, Truth Social, was unleashing a series of posts denouncing Carroll and Kaplan. “The only right, honest, and lawful thing that Clinton-appointed Judge Lewis Kaplan, who has so far been unable to see clearly because of his absolute hatred of Donald J. Trump (ME!), can do is to end this unAmerican injustice being done to a President of the United States, who was wrongfully accused by a woman he never met, saw, or touched,” his account said. Who was speaking here? Was it the man in the courtroom, or somebody else? Just when you think you’ve been dulled to Trump’s outrages, his particular blend of incoherence, rage, and omnipresence surprises you again.

After a lunch break, Trump did not return to Kaplan’s courtroom. The case proceeded without him, with both sides presenting their opening arguments. Shawn Crowley, one of Carroll’s lawyers, made note of Trump’s posts just minutes before. She told the nine New Yorkers picked to sit in the jury box that the case was about “damages,” about the criminal-justice system finding a material way to address the harms Trump has caused her client. “For more than four years, he has not stopped,” Crowley said. “How much money will it take to make him stop?” In this case, Carroll is seeking at least ten million dollars.

In a just and sane world, it would take only one jury finding a former President guilty of sexual assault to sideline that former President politically forever. Carroll was also in the courtroom on Tuesday. She is eighty years old. She made her name as a sassy, knowing, charming advice columnist for Elle in the heyday of women’s magazines. All Tuesday morning, she calmly sat a few feet from the man who’d attacked her, who has promised to take revenge on his enemies if he is reëlected President this November. Crowley said that Carroll now sleeps with a loaded gun next to her bed.

Trump—who is facing an additional civil case, a fraud case, related to his private business dealings brought by the New York State attorney general’s office, and criminal cases in Georgia, Florida, and Washington, D.C., related to his conduct around the 2020 election—seems to have grown comfortable with his extreme legal peril. “It’s a terrible thing you’ve done!” Trump barked at the judge in his fraud case, at a hearing in November. (“I beseech you to control him, if you can,” the judge told Trump’s lawyers.) On Monday, Trump easily won the Iowa Republican Party caucuses. On Tuesday night, he held a campaign rally in New Hampshire. The cases against him have been neatly incorporated into his campaign themes of grievance and vengeance. In fact, he argued that the cases had helped his showing in Iowa. “If I didn’t get indicted all these times, and if they didn’t unfairly go after me, I would have won, but it would have been much closer,” he said, on Tuesday night. “I go to a lot of courthouses because of Biden, because they’re using that for election interference.” Trump is expected to be back in Kaplan’s courtroom this week or next, to testify in his own defense, to keep up his only purpose in life now, the reason the whole country is stuck in this political doom loop, subjected to a repeat of the 2020 election and to the daily rantings of a bitter, hateful old man. Trump is trying to outrun his own consequences. ♦

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