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As His Fraud Trial Begins, Trump Looks to Capitalize on It


Former President Donald J. Trump is expected to attend the opening of the civil trial in the New York attorney general’s fraud case against him on Monday, as his political team seeks to turn it into a rallying cry for supporters.

The decision to show up voluntarily in court by Mr. Trump, who has already been compelled to courthouses in four different criminal arraignments this year, underscores how personally aggrieved Mr. Trump feels by the accusations of fraud, as well as his own self-confidence that showing up will help his legal cause.

The move also reveals how inverted the norms of politics have become in the Trump-era Republican Party: Being accused of wrongdoing could be politically beneficial despite the very real legal jeopardy.

In a political age in which candidates are defined as much by their critics and opponents as by their stances, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers see an opportunity in a case first brought by a Democratic New York attorney general, Letitia James, even if the accusations cut to the heart of his identity.

In some ways, the Trump campaign, which has seen his supporters galvanized by the criminal charges he’s faced, is trying to turn the civil case into something akin to a fifth indictment — a moment to motivate his base.

“Trump seems to be approaching his legal troubles like a hand of hearts — one or two indictments hurt you politically, but if you collect them all, you might shoot the moon,” Liam Donovan, a Republican operative, said. “The sheer volume and variety obscures the individual cases and their fact patterns, and plays into Trump’s argument that his opponents are trying to take him down by whatever means they can.”

For Mr. Trump, his attendance at trial is far more personal than political, according to a person familiar with his thinking. The former president is enraged by the fraud charges and furious with both the judge and the attorney general. And Mr. Trump, who is a control enthusiast, believes that trials have gone poorly for him when he hasn’t been present, and he hopes to affect the outcome this time, according to the person.

The former president, for instance, never attended the civil trial earlier this year in which the writer, E. Jean Carroll, accused him of raping her in the 1990s, despite publicly toying with the idea of appearing. Mr. Trump was found liable for sexually abusing Ms. Carroll and defaming her.

Mr. Trump announced his decision to attend the opening of his fraud trial on Truth Social on Sunday evening, saying he would fight for his “name and reputation” in court.

Over the weekend, Mr. Trump’s campaign openly sought to take advantage of the attention, sending fund-raising solicitations that teased his possible attendance and accusing Democrats of “trying to keep me off the campaign trail.”

“After four sham arrests, indictments, and even a mug shot failed to break me, a Democrat judge is now trying to destroy my Family Business,” Mr. Trump wrote in a fund-raising message on Saturday.

The push to highlight the trial comes at a critical juncture for Mr. Trump’s primary challengers, who face a narrowing window to show signs of life in a race that Mr. Trump has threatened to run away with.

The specifics of the case can seem almost beside the point. A New York trial judge, Arthur F. Engoron, issued a surprise pretrial ruling last week that found Mr. Trump liable for overvaluing his properties. The ruling left his assets, including Trump Tower itself, vulnerable to seizure. The point of the trial is to determine the scope of damages that Mr. Trump and his company must pay — as much as $250 million. Mr. Trump and his lawyers have argued that the ruling is illegitimate and doesn’t follow the facts of the case.

Years ago, a decision like the one that Justice Engoron issued would have been a source of embarrassment for a candidate and might have been considered by that candidate’s supporters as a reason to back someone else.

But this is the new post-shame period of politics, in which candidates have observed over time that the mistake is allowing oneself to be thrown out of the ring. That sentiment affects both parties, to a degree: A Democratic senator, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, was indicted on corruption charges, and gold bars were found in his house. He has pleaded not guilty and vowed to stay in the Senate.

However, a number of his colleagues have called for him to resign, in stark contrast to how the vast majority of Republican officials have gingerly handled — and continued to support — Mr. Trump, echoing his repeated claim that he’s the victim of political persecution.

Mr. Trump’s single previous highest day of fund-raising, according to the campaign, came after his mug shot was released in his Georgia indictment, which accused him of being part of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

Corry Bliss, a veteran Republican political strategist, said all the previous indictments and legal cases have blended together for most Republican primary voters into a single picture of a former president wrongly under attack.

“If anything, it’s reinforced a belief among the large segment of the base that Trump is treated unfairly and the Democrats dislike him so much that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to defeat him — whether that’s electorally or in the judicial system,” Mr. Bliss said. “The legal facts that most Republicans are interested in are the Hunter Biden facts. Period. End of discussion.”

Any attention on the Trump case is also likely to rob Mr. Trump’s rivals of the political oxygen they need to close the substantial advantage that the former president holds in the polls. None of his opponents, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, have yet to figure out a way to turn Mr. Trump’s multitude of legal troubles against him, or to cut through the extensive media coverage.

“It starves them,” said Raheem Kassam, editor in chief of The National Pulse, a conservative news site, who interviewed Mr. Trump last week. “It starves them.”

For Mr. Trump, Mr. Kassam said, “every step of the way it drags on, it only empowers him” in part because “notoriety at this point” is an advantage itself. And that trend, he noted, is not exclusive to Mr. Trump, citing Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally, who faced an investigation related to sex-trafficking that was eventually dropped.

“If you look at what happened to Gaetz, his star rose because of it,” Mr. Kassam said.

Mr. Trump’s family has explicitly tried to frame the coming trial as an example of political persecution, deploying the same language as they have in his criminal cases. Mr. Trump has called Judge Engoron “deranged,” the very same term he has sought to apply to the Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith.

“I’ve never even seen anything like it,” Donald Trump Jr. said in an interview last week on The Charlie Kirk Show. “This is sort of like the start of the Bolshevik Revolution — we don’t like you, so we’re going to confiscate property.”

He added, “Hey, our last name is Trump, so we have to be punished.”



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