You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Voir Dire

Criminal Defendant of the Year: Donald Trump

The former president took his Avignon presidency to the courtroom in 2023. Will he win back the White House from the hot seat in 2024?

Jabin Botsford/Getty Images

It was approaching midnight on election night, and the networks had just declared that Democrats had won the presidential election. Donald Trump was outraged. He was furious. He refused to accept the result. He immediately took to Twitter to summon his supporters to action.

“This election is a total sham and a travesty!”

“More votes equals a loss … revolution!”

“Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us.”

“We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

No one marched on Washington. In a gracious speech that evening, Mitt Romney conceded defeat. Barack Obama took the oath of office for a second time two months later to begin his second term as president. The postelection customs—the concession, the call for unity, the White House meeting, the second inauguration—were familiar and unremarkable. It was 2013, and few things were as reliable as America’s two-century tradition of peaceful transfers of power.

Trump later went back and deleted some of those tweets, including the “march on Washington” one. I kept screenshots of them for reasons that I no longer remember. Maybe I texted them to a friend at the time for mockery’s sake. Maybe I knew they’d be deleted soon and I wanted to keep them for my own amusement or edification. I could not have known that eight years later his wish would come true.

Eight years later, Trump is facing a criminal trial for his role in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, as well as other efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election that he lost. Special counsel Jack Smith has charged him with conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstructing an official proceeding, and other related crimes. The special counsel’s office is also overseeing charges against him in Florida for absconding from the White House with a small trove of classified documents.

This is only a selection of the criminal charges that the former president is facing, of course. Altogether, Trump has been charged with 91 counts of state and federal crimes. The first one came in March when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged him with 34 counts of falsifying business records. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis also brought charges against him and 18 co-conspirators for various election-related plots to overturn the 2020 election results in that state.

The cases are laying bare Trump’s various pathologies. Everything is a “witch hunt” by corrupt and biased people. As president, he spent his days publishing rants on Twitter about those who had apparently wronged him: then–special counsel Robert Mueller, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, former legal fixer Michael Cohen, and countless others. He criticized two of his attorneys general for not doing more to protect him. He attacked the news media for covering the proceedings and allegations. He lambasted Republicans for not doing more to defend him.

Private life has not changed him. New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is overseeing a civil lawsuit to dissolve the Trump Organization for various alleged tax and bank frauds, is often described by Trump as a “racist” for suing him. Trump uses the same line of attack against Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney prosecuting the Georgia case. (Both are Black women.) Bragg is a “local failed district attorney.” Smith, the special counsel, is “deranged.” Trump’s behavior is always perfect, and his prosecutors are always committing political hatchet jobs against him.

Various judges have tried to treat Trump like any other defendant. During part of his civil fraud trial last month, he publicly disparaged the principal law clerk of Judge Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the case. Trump described her to reporters as a “person who’s very partisan sitting alongside [the judge].” It is extraordinary for a defendant to single out a judge’s staff in such a manner, and Engoron responded by fining Trump $10,000 for the comment. Trump has since moved on to making false claims about Engoron’s wife.

Just about everyone gets tarred with this well-worn brush. Well, except for Judge Aileen Cannon. The Florida-based federal judge was appointed by the former president in the waning hours of the Trump administration, only taking her seat in November 2020. She received widespread criticism for her highly favorable rulings for Trump when he challenged the Mar-a-Lago search warrant; now she oversees the trial against Trump for illegally possessing classified information. Trump, sensing her affinity for him, has only ever praised her.

Judges are used to public criticism, whether fair-minded or not. Even more concerning than that are Trump’s comments about his witnesses and co-defendants. As president, Trump used the implicit promise of pardons and the threat of public castigation to keep potentially adverse witnesses from flipping against him. The primary beneficiary of this affair was former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who Trump favorably compared on Twitter to Cohen for not turning state’s witness against him.

Trump’s powers are also not as great as they once were. Without the presidency and the ability to dangle pardons as a reward for loyalty, he has much less leverage over his co-conspirators to ensure their silence. Trump’s legal fees are being paid by his campaign committees and associated super PACs instead of from his own pocket. According to the Associated Press, Trump’s legal fees now exceed those of the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, and the GOP’s Senate fundraising arm combined.

Many of the other defendants caught up in Trump’s myriad schemes aren’t so lucky. Some have turned to crowdfunding or wealthy benefactors to fund their legal teams. A few have thrown in the towel completely. Jenna Ellis, one of the most ferocious Trump lawyers in the aftermath of the 2020 election, accepted a plea deal with Georgia prosecutors in October. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these postelection challenges,” she said in a court hearing. Other top figures like Sidney Powell and Ken Chesebro have taken similar deals; Chesebro is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors in multiple states where the fake-elector plot took place.

Trump, for his part, is continuing to lie and obfuscate his way through proceedings. “Based on the above, and the fact that our unassailable final expert witness has been so strong and irrefutable in his testimony, which will conclude on Tuesday, & that I have already testified to everything & have nothing more to say other than that this is a complete & total election interference (Biden campaign!) witch hunt, that will do nothing but keep businesses out of New York, I will not be testifying on Monday,” Trump wrote at the end of a lengthy jeremiad on Truth Social. “MAGA!”

The unassailable final expert witness to whom Trump referred is apparently Eli Bartov, a NYU Stern research professor. “If Mr. Trump were my student, he would get an A on his financial statements,” Bartov testified, according to Trump’s post. “I’ve never seen a statement that provided so much detail, and is so transparent, as these statements.” He was paid almost $900,000 by Trump’s legal team for his testimony.

“Whether or not he testifies again tomorrow, we have already proven that he committed years of financial fraud and unjustly enriched himself,” James replied in a Twitter post. “No matter how much he tries to distract from reality, the facts don’t lie.”

Trump’s ability to comment on cases could also soon become much more limited. On Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of a gag order that restricted him from making certain public comments in the January 6 case. Trump had argued that he had a First Amendment right to say whatever he wanted about the trial as a presidential candidate. But the trial court and the appeals court both ruled he couldn’t publicly comment on witnesses, court and prosecutor staff other than Smith himself, or any of their families.

“We do not allow such an order lightly,” the D.C. Circuit panel ruled. “Mr. Trump is a former President and current candidate for the presidency, and there is a strong public interest in what he has to say. But Mr. Trump is also an indicted criminal defendant, and he must stand trial in a courtroom under the same procedures that govern all other criminal defendants. That is what the rule of law means.”

Will this deter him? Probably not. Trump does not respect the rule of law or consider himself bound by it. There are no more surprises with this man. There is nothing left to learn about him. Everything that he does from now on is entirely predictable. Even his January 6 plot was telegraphed far in advance. The only real question left is whether everyone else will rise to the occasion.