"Losing all credibility": Trump's hush money lawyer the latest to torch his reputation for nothing

Todd Blanche was once regarded as a great lawyer, but now he's making embarrassing arguments to please his client

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 2, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump's attorney Todd Blanche appears in court during Trump's trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 26, 2024 in New York City. (Mark Peterson-Pool/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump's attorney Todd Blanche appears in court during Trump's trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 26, 2024 in New York City. (Mark Peterson-Pool/Getty Images)

Going into Donald Trump's Manhattan criminal trial for fraud and election interference regarding "hush money" payments to an adult film actress, the world of legal experts worried that, this time, Trump might mount a strong defense. Unlike many of the lawyers he used in his civil trials, who are widely regarded as MAGA hacks, Trump hired Todd Blanche to beat the 34 felony charges brought by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Blanche, as the Washington Post reported, "previously worked at the prestigious federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan," even working alongside Bragg before going to a private law firm. And as Andrew Rice of New York magazine explained, Blanche has long drawn accolades from "the lawyers who know him best" in New York. They say things like, "He’s an extraordinary trial lawyer" and "very good at reading people."

Blanche has been completely assimilated into the MAGA borg.

Before the trial started in April, Blanche had, in fact, deftly maneuvered in many ways to delay various Trump trials, a strategy likely employed out of a deep understanding that Trump is unlikely to do well once a jury sees evidence of his alleged crimes. But now that he's actually trying a case in the court of Judge Juan Merchan in Manhattan, much of Blanche's defense strategy seems puzzling at best and downright foolish in many cases. Sometimes it's hard not to wonder if he's trying to alienate the judge and jury that hold his client's fate in their hands. 

During opening statements, for instance, Blanche kept openly flouting the judicial restrictions. Prosecutors successfully objected more than half a dozen times, which is highly unusual during opening statements — and could turn a jury against the defendant. Meanwhile, Blanche struggles to control Trump, who doesn't just sleep through much of the trial but keeps pulling out his phone, against courtroom rules. Under Blanche's leadership, another defense lawyer, Emil Bove, pretended he had a damning document to present a witness, but it was just a bunch of words that had no bearing on the case. This is a classic Trump trick, as he often uses blank pieces of paper to pretend to have "evidence" he does not have. But in court, it backfired on Blanche's team and the judge called them out in front of the jury. 

But it was really the battle over Trump's refusal to obey the judge's gag order that exposed how much Blanche seems unmoored from his past as a respected, professional litigator. Trump flagrantly violated the judge's order to avoid speaking publicly about the jurors or witnesses, to the point where one potential juror had to be sent home because of Trump's threatening messages. Rather than do the smart thing and tell his client to knock it off, Blanche beclowned himself in court, trying to argue that because Trump was quoting a Fox News video instead of using his own words, it didn't count. To compound the bad faith of the argument, it turned out that Trump made up part of the quote. 

"You're losing all credibility with the court," Merchan exasperatedly explained. He soon ruled Trump was in contempt of court, fining him the paltry maximum of $9,000 under New York law. But, Merchan said, "an incarceratory punishment" was on the table if Trump kept it up. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

When asked why he's taken on such an odious client, Blanche uses high-minded rhetoric about equality under the law, pointing out that even universally despised rapists like Jeffrey Epstein can find lawyers willing to defend them. He told Rice that it's "incredible hypocrisy" to hear lawyers who are willing to defend mafiosos and other shameless criminals turn their noses up to Trump. 

But, as Rice details, this is not a matter of Blanche holding his nose and taking on an undesirable client. Blanche has been completely assimilated into the MAGA borg. He changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He bought a house near Mar-a-Lago. He attends Trump campaign events. He works out of Trump's offices. It's the same process we've all seen time and again with people who work for Trump: Either you get completely on board with Trump and all his delusions, or you're pushed out. This fear keeps people from noticing what is obvious to outsiders: Sticking by Trump means a very strong chance you ruin your life and torch your reputation. And that's if you're lucky enough not to go to jail. Just ask Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer who went to prison for him and is now a witness in the case Blanche is currently trying. 

Blanche's bad choices in trial largely seem driven by a need to placate his famously narcissistic client, who believes belligerence and lies are a superior strategy to more well-regarded tactics like being diplomatic, showing respect, and staying within the facts. Trump is even reportedly insisting that Blanche stick to the ridiculous story that a sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels never happened, a claim so preposterous it could make the jury assume everything else the defense says is a lie. 

Despite sacrificing so much of his reputation to defend Trump, however, Blanche is reportedly learning the same lesson everyone who backs Trump learns: He rewards loyalty by spitting in your face. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, Trump has been complaining constantly about Blanche behind closed doors. He whines that Blanche "has not been following his instructions closely, and has been insufficiently aggressive." Trump wants Blanche to "attack witnesses, attack what the former president sees as a hostile jury pool, and attack the judge."

As anyone with basic common sense can see, these demands run directly counter to the job Trump allegedly hired Blanche to do, which is to keep him out of prison. From some of the strategic errors Blanche has already made, it seems the defense lawyer is trying to placate Trump with more minor infractions. But Trump's narcissism causes him to believe he's "his own best legal strategist," the New York Times reporters write. As he does with every lawyer, including those in the Department of Justice who resisted his demands to steal the 2020 election for him, Trump is going to keep pushing Blanche to embrace methods that are dangerous, stupid, and possibly illegal. 

As legal expert Mark Hermann wrote for the Daily Beast, doing what Trump wants is dangerous for lawyers. One can lose their license to practice law, which is exactly what happened to Roy Cohn, Trump's former lawyer that he regularly invokes when complaining that his new lawyers won't cross legal and ethical lines for him. (Trump repaid Cohn's loyalty by leaving him to die alone.) Same story with Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, who are facing not just the loss of their law licenses, but of their freedom, as they face charges in Georgia and Arizona for reported crimes during Trump's coup. Hermann writes, "There’s an old saying among criminal defense lawyers: 'Be sure that, at the end of the trial, your client is the one who goes to jail.'” But Trump makes that very hard for his lawyers, as history shows. 

We need your help to stay independent

Cohen will have his say during the trial, but he touched on this point in 2019 when he had to testify before the House Oversight Committee about all of Trump's criminal actions he bore witness to. Republicans on the committee made fools of themselves, making up lies and feigning outrage over nonsense to defend Trump, but Cohen wasn't having it. Instead, he warned them: People who "follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering."

Perhaps not prison — though that's come for plenty of them — but the risks of ruin in following Trump are myriad. Many of the congressional Republicans who Cohen warned have, indeed, watched their political careers go up in smoke. Former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy cuddled up to Trump, and now he's not just a former speaker but out of Congress entirely. One of the members of the committee helping Trump out that day, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, is now under felony indictment in both Georgia and Arizona. And most of them had their lives threatened when Trump sent an insurrectionist mob to the Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

Trump's view of his relationships with other people is simple: They owe him everything, including their lives and their freedom. He owes them nothing. Seems like a bad bet, but time and again, people talk themselves into believing they're the genius who will figure out how to make this deal with the devil work. Blanche is just the latest person to delude himself this way. It's starting to look like he may be the latest to regret it. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Todd Blanche Trump Crimes Trump Trial