Trump's lawyers are trying to use his trial to generate conspiracy theories — but it's not working

Even the most MAGA-deluded voters struggle to pretend Trump is the victim in the Stormy Daniels plot

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

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

Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 3, 2024 in New York City. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 3, 2024 in New York City. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's lawyers famously spend a lot of their time placating their client's narcissistic delusions, even at the expense of their purported priority of keeping him out of prison. It's not just the over-the-top belligerence that Trump demands from his lawyers, which runs the risk of angering both the judge and the jury, Trump wants his lawyers to stick to his preposterous claims that he's never done anything wrong. He wants to pretend that he's the most perfect man who ever lived and that anyone who says otherwise has some secret agenda to victimize him. 

As this trial goes on, the defense team has adopted Trump's favored tactic of floating conspiracy theories to explain away the mounting pile of evidence against him. In some cases, they may be trying to convince at least one juror the conspiracy theory is the same as reasonable doubt. But there appears to be another audience they're trying to reach: Trump's MAGA fans.

Telling such an obvious whopper to a jury seems like it will backfire by making them believe the defense attorneys are just liars.

MAGA has long relied on conspiracy theories to justify their odious political beliefs. For some reason, Trump seems to believe his followers need a story to tell to claim he's innocent of everything said about him during this trial, even though he very obviously isn't. So he's making his lawyers waste their time propagating the narrative instead of focusing their energies solely on the goal of confusing at least one juror to render a hung jury. 

But Trump's supporters don't seem to be biting. MAGA may not love that their leader is on trial, but the conspiracy theories he's floating are so asinine that even his most shameless hype men are shying away from repeating them. It turns out there are conspiracy theories that are too dumb for even the Trump base to embrace. This disconnect also suggests that Trump's self-absorption is causing him to lose sight of what, exactly, his followers want from him. 

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The most obvious and frankly hilarious example: The defense team is sticking by Trump's story that he never had sex with Stormy Daniels. I can hear readers scoffing, but it's true, they're really going that route. Even in his opening statement, defense attorney Todd Blanche argued that Daniels' story is a "false claim of a sexual encounter" with Trump, one she made up as part of an extortion scheme. 

As a defense strategy in court, this seems ill-advised. As anyone who has seen Daniels in an interview can attest, she comes across as a credible person. Certainly much more so than Trump, who lies and dissembles every waking moment of the day. But also, it just doesn't make sense. As no other than Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters recently, "You don’t pay someone $130,000 not to have sex with you." Plus, Trump's-then attorney (now turned state's witness) Michael Cohen was threatening Daniels to shut up years before the pay-off scheme, which wouldn't have been true if she made it all up to extort a presidential candidate in 2016. Plus, there's the other mistress, Karen McDougal, helping establish that Trump was not averse to adultery.

Telling such an obvious whopper to a jury seems like it will backfire by making them believe the defense attorneys are just liars. Trump's claims of sexual virtue seem more aimed at the outside audience, as if he hopes his supporters will start parroting his ridiculous notions that he's never done anything wrong. There were a couple of half-baked efforts to do this. The far-right network OAN even tried to float the conspiracy theory that it was Cohen, not Trump, who had sex with Daniels — but they were quickly forced to retract the story and apologize to Cohen. That's highly unusual for the network, which seems to exist primarily to spread right-wing disinformation. Part of this is because Cohen threatened to sue. But OAN didn't even bother to put up a fight. It suggests that even the folks at OAN are a bit embarrassed by this. 

Trump's lawyers are leaning into the narrative that he is a perfect angel who just keeps being targeted by vast conspiracies. During the cross-examination of lawyer Keith Davidson, who represented Daniels as Trump and Cohen paid her hush money, Trump attorney Emil Bove kept pushing the "extortion" conspiracy theory. He appeared to be arguing that Daniels and Davidson had concocted a shakedown scheme. But it doesn't pass the basic common sense test to argue that Trump would be so threatened by a false story that he'd pay her this much money. 

Things got even sillier on Thursday when Bove questioned forensics expert Douglas Daus. Daus was just there to verify that text messages and recordings from Cohen's phone were real. But Bove tore into the guy, repeatedly suggesting the information extracted from the phone was compromised or fabricated in some way as if the texts and recordings were the product of a "deep state" conspiracy. It's hard to imagine this is for a jury made up of people who were screened to make sure they aren't QAnon-style nuts. Likelier is the hope that this conspiracy theory will get traction in the right-wing propaganda machine, feeding Trump followers talking points they can use to dismiss it if the jury convicts. 

But what's fascinating is that the MAGA media doesn't seem to be biting. Instead of trying to discredit the allegations against Trump, the right-wing press has gone with a deflect-and-distract strategy. As Media Matters chronicled, Fox News is doing lots of "look over there!"-style segments making a big deal out of Trump's press events at bodegas, rather than grappling with what's going on inside the courtroom. The network is also pushing the idea that Trump should get "immunity" for all his crimes, which feels like a tacit admission of guilt. Even those who are trying to get conspiracy theories going, like Steve Bannon at War Room, are focused on attacking the prosecutors for having "political" motivations. Denying the truth of the allegations is not a priority, because even the MAGA audiences won't buy it. 

In the past, Trump has clearly understood that even his supporters don't buy the idea that he's a good person. If anything, his transgressions, both legal and criminal, are part of his appeal. He's an aspirational figure to people who wish they could also cheat on their wives and commit crimes, all without facing consequences. While they do have an astounding amount of tolerance for his endless whining, his appeal was never his "woe is me" victim act, but his impunity. 

It also shows he forgets what his supporters want from him: A figurehead for their fascist movement. They want a Trump who is focused on crushing people they hate and making bold promises to restore conservative white Christians to a place of unearned privilege they feel they've lost. They don't care about his "I never did it" conspiracy theories. Most never cared about what he gets up to in his personal life, or even really any crimes committed. The Trumpian conspiracy theories that gain traction are those that validate their culture war grievances. The Big Lie is beloved because it tells them a story where they aren't outnumbered by Americans who disagree with them. But why should they care if Trump breaks the law and cheats on his wife? That was always part of his appeal. That he would deny it at this late date is odd, and suggests he really is becoming unmoored not just from reality, but his own relationship to his base.


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.

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