The gag "trap" of Manhattan's hush-money trial: "Trump will take the bait"

Will Donald Trump take the stand in his own defense? Experts weigh in on his first criminal trial

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 29, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Former US President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 26, 2024. (DAVE SANDERS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 26, 2024. (DAVE SANDERS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The second week of Donald Trump’s historic criminal trial in Manhattan for allegedly paying hush money to Stormy Daniels to conceal their relationship from the public during the 2016 campaign has concluded. Week three begins Tuesday. 

The so-called walls that have been closing in on Donald Trump ever since his multiple criminal indictments — in this case and the three more serious cases related to the Jan. 6 coup attempt, the larger plot against American democracy and his retention of classified documents — are now much closer. No cameras are allowed in the Manhattan courtroom, but the descriptions of Trump are not flattering. He reportedly appears flustered, angry and overtly hostile. He apparently vacillates between falling asleep and being jolted awake to stare menacingly at witnesses, the judge and other people in the courtroom.

Trump has also been made to look pathetic, if not tragic, given that his own family members, including his wife Melania, have not yet attended the trial. Trump’s throngs of MAGA followers have seemingly abandoned their Dear Leader. So far, only a dozen or so, sometimes fewer, have been “protesting” outside the courthouse.

After only two weeks Donald Trump has basically been reduced to being a mere mortal while in Judge Merchan’s courtroom. This reality is the opposite of the titanic god-king messiah image he tries to present to his followers.

In an attempt to make better sense of the second week of Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, its implications for the 2024 election and the larger democracy crisis, and what may happen next, I recently spoke with a range of experts.

Cheri Jacobus is a political strategist, writer, ex-Republican, and host of the podcast "Politics With Cheri Jacobus."

Trump seems small, shriveled, old, pathetic and weak, falling asleep (among other things), and whining in pressers and on Truth Social to the point where anyone else would have been tossed in the slammer for violating the gag order. He has no family with him, no friends, and mistakenly thought the streets around the courthouse were blocked because the streets were void of pro-Trump protesters. In fact, the main street was open and only one Trump supporter showed up. If this was happening to almost anyone other than Trump, one could feel sorry for him. Trump's fear is visible. Palpable. And fills me with glee.

Trump's cartoonish image of "strength" fed to the unwashed masses at his rallies and Fox News viewers does not hold up in the harsh reality of a Manhattan courtroom. His makeup is gaudy and weird, he doesn't get the special lighting, there is no music for his "entrance", and no sea of MAGA red hats. There is nothing but the long-awaited justice that he's evaded his entire life. Aside from Trump's criminal acts, his evangelical supporters in particular are reminded of his tawdry personal life of sex with porn stars, Playboy models and more, while his wife de jour pretends not to notice.

It's a scene fit for the cover of the National Enquirer,. But its publisher, David Pecker, is a prosecution witness, which makes this even more delicious.

As the trial moves forward, I do expect to see poll numbers dropping for the Donald, especially since Joe Biden is confident and comfortable taking justifiable potshots at Trump not only for his lies, incompetency and policy blunders, but his criminality — and doing it with humor and good cheer. That's got to be getting under Trump's orange skin almost as much as hearing the testimony against him in court. Bravo Dark Brandon!

Dr. John Gartner is a prominent psychologist and contributor to the bestselling book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President."

Trump's trial in Manhattan is providing more evidence of his apparent cognitive decline. Trump fell asleep four out of six days at his own trial. Falling asleep is not in and of itself specific to dementia. I fall asleep at dinner parties, because I’m old and work too hard. Bill Clinton was famous for it. But can you remember a criminal defendant repeatedly unable to stay awake at his own trial? I can’t. It’s obviously very rare. Most people are pumped full of adrenaline when they’re in the dock. Some have argued Trump’s just tired, or perhaps deprived of his stimulants. But lots of defendants are tired and either on drugs, or missing their drugs, while in court, but they don’t repeatedly pass out at their own trials.

"America really needs to know if Trump is incontinent."

This may be the first criminal trial I’ve been aware of where the defendant appears, in my opinion, to have dementia. Is it a coincidence that it’s also the only one I’ve ever known where the defendant can’t remain awake most days? Trump appears to be losing control of his basic biological functions. One is sleep-wake. The other may be excretion. Twitter blew up when both Ben Meiselas and George Conway reported they had heard from multiple credible sources in the courtroom that Trump was loudly passing gas and the smell was overpowering. This was judged by Snopes to be unconfirmed. Personally, I trust the people who reported it. I don’t believe they would make that up. 

Trump's apparent disease is progressing rapidly before our eyes and yet we’re being gaslit that this is "Trump being Trump." That’s true, but it is also true that Trump appears to be dementing and the mainstream media doesn’t want to report on that story.

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The trial is really a form of psychological torture for a malignant narcissist who needs to appear powerful. Instead, he appears small, confused and helpless. Jenifer Rubin wrote in her Washington Post column: “Trump day by day has become smaller, more decrepit, and frankly, somewhat pathetic.” Thankfully, the Biden campaign is amplifying this winning message. To fight back, Trump must act out. He is defying Merchan’s gag order repeatedly, flagrantly and at a manic pace with no thought of the consequences — in the courthouse lobby on a lunch break, on Newsmax in the evening, and then at 3 a.m. on Truth Social.

"Lies helped him win once. Truth will undo him this time."

Merchan will be unable to escape a showdown with Trump, who will compulsively push him to the limit and beyond, forcing an inevitable confrontation. Only one will emerge as dominant, and my money is on the judge, but that’s not a foregone conclusion. If Donald Trump is jailed, he’ll wear his incarceration like a martyr, like he’s Nelson Mandela or Alexei Navalny. While Fox News and his base will stoke right-wing outrage, I think sane people still like presidents who don’t get jailed.

David Rothkopf is the host of the Deep State Radio podcast and the author of several books, including “American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation.”

Donald Trump's New York trial reminds us that before there was the big lie, there was the big liar. Lying is so core to everything he is and does that he's a figment of his own imagination. Lies helped him win once. Truth will undo him this time.

Brynn Tannehill is a journalist and author of "American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy."

I'm seeing a lot of things that don't make for a single story, but a lot of little ones that add up to this hurting Trump bit by bit electorally. Reports of him repeatedly falling asleep and farting chemical death bombs on his lawyers constantly don't exactly project "Strongman". The judge is already tired of Trump and his lawyers' shenanigans when it comes to flouting the gag order. The DA is asking for 10 counts at $1000 each and a warning that the next one might land him a night in jail. I think this is a trap and Trump will take the bait: the penalty is so low on this first violation that he won't be afraid to step right up to, or over, the line again. That's when the DA asks for a night in jail, and the judge may say yes because he's had it.

While this trial is going on, Trump isn't out on the campaign trail. He's still generating news every day, but all of it is bad. This trial is also expected to last up to three months. His campaign's ground game is reportedly weak. And after this, he probably rolls right into his next trial. His numbers are slipping, and I think they'll keep slipping.

Things are going about as I thought they would, though I hadn't realized how long this would keep Trump off the campaign trail.

The biggest two things I'm looking for are whether Trump takes the stand (he will want to desperately, but he's a terrible witness, it will likely make the situation way worse, and his lawyers know it), and when he finally crosses the line and ends up spending a night in jail for contempt. I think the latter is more or less a foregone conclusion given he's going to be hearing nasty things about himself for weeks, he has anger issues, poor self-control, and the initial punishment is going to be so weak that it will reinforce his belief that he can get away with it indefinitely. Finally, I'm really looking forward to seeing if the DA can make a convincing case that the way the hush money payments were made was illegal, and not just sketchy and underhanded politics. That was always the toughest hill to climb and made this the weakest of the four criminal cases against him.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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