Trump’s New Hampshire strategy – insults and court histrionics

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  Donald Trump is unveiling a two-pronged strategy to claim a second big election victory in New Hampshire’s primary next week that he hopes will quickly end the GOP nominating race.

The former president is escalating his effort to use his legal problems to dominate attention and to rally his most adoring supporters. And he’s turning up the heat on his top rival in the state – his former Cabinet member Nikki Haley – who has her best chance there to win an early contest against her former boss and prolong the race.

Five days before the primary, Trump gave his most explicit sign yet that his legal defense and his presidential campaign are one and the same when he jumped directly from a Manhattan courtroom to a campaign rally in New Hampshire.

First, the former president voluntarily showed up in court in New York to come face-to-face with E. Jean Carroll – the writer whom a civil jury has already found he sexually abused. Carroll on Wednesday was giving evidence for the first time in Trump’s presence, in a new trial to determine how much he will pay in damages for defaming her.

The former president publicly fulminated against Judge Lewis Kaplan as “nasty” and a “Trump-hating guy” and bucked courtroom etiquette. His belligerence at one point led Kaplan to threaten to eject him – just the latest run-in he’s had with a judge in a case against him.

After leaving the courthouse, he returned to the state where 24 hours earlier he had referred to Haley by her birth name, which reflects her South Asian heritage. This appears to be the latest time that Trump has injected a racial element into political attacks. The former president has also referred to Haley, who’s trying to become the first female GOP presidential nominee, as “birdbrain.”

His histrionics are part of a pattern of behavior trampling standards of decorum, which would have long ended any conventional political career. While they may cause few qualms among his most faithful supporters, his antics raise new questions about whether the GOP front-runner’s character could alienate moderate general election voters if he emerges as the nominee, especially critical suburban women voters, who have soured on him – and his party – in recent elections. Still, much of Trump’s appeal for some voters who see him as authentic stems from the way he says whatever he wants – and doesn’t try to be politically correct.

Trump’s decision to attend the Carroll case in person illustrates how he’s seeking to create a narrative of political persecution as he rallies Republicans to drown out his GOP rivals and to shape his potential general election clash with President Joe Biden.

His behavior in court highlighted his enduring contempt for the legal system. Trump accused Kaplan of being heartless for not suspending the trial so that he can attend the funeral of his mother-in-law. Yet Trump is not required to be at these hearings, a fact that the judge pointed out. And after he made a huge public show of the issue on Wednesday evening, he posted on Truth Social that he’d be going to Florida for the funeral in any case.

In the other controversy, Trump’s use of Haley’s given first name recalled his frequent use of President Barack Obama’s middle name “Hussein,” which also implied racial prejudice and a sense that the 44th president was not American and may have been ineligible to serve. Trump has long used racial insinuations in his rhetoric as a nod to his most far-right supporters. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, is a natural-born citizen born in South Carolina.

“I know Trump threw a temper tantrum about me last night. I heard that,” Haley said in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Wednesday. “I’ve seen the commercials you see. I will always tell you the truth,” she added, before trying to clarify her position on the border and Social Security.

The former South Carolina governor has created an aura of toughness around her campaign, which Trump by his words and actions is now testing. “Everybody that’s ever worked for me or worked with me, no one ever questions my toughness,” Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash in an interview on Sunday. But Haley has only implicitly criticized Trump’s assault on democracy, false claims of electoral fraud and tumultuous term in office. “Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” Haley says at almost every campaign event. While she has accused Trump of lying about her, she’s rarely been specific about his aberrant behavior, leaving the impression she’s wary of alienating his supporters.

The ex-president’s latest extreme conduct followed a comparatively magnanimous speech Monday night as he celebrated his win in the Iowa caucuses. His quick return to vitriol was thus another example of how he can never be relied on to stick to a script and showed how a far more professional campaign structure in 2024 hasn’t really changed him.

Trump long ago obliterated the standards of deportment expected of a presidential candidate and commander in chief. So recent incidents are unlikely to change perceptions of his character. And at a time when many Americans are struggling from high grocery prices and interest rates and don’t feel the economic recovery that Biden touts, Trump’s perceived character deficits may not be a dominant issue in the 2024 election.

His supporters often disregard such outlandish behavior or share his view that he’s merely reacting to what he says is unfair treatment – a widespread belief among Republicans that is in itself a powerful aspect of Trump’s political armory. His willingness to say things other candidates might consider indecent is also a vital part of his appeal to base voters, who value his scorn for systems he’s said are stacked against them.

Trump’s capacity to rewrite conventional reality is also highlighted by his success in convincing millions of Republicans that a fair election in 2020 was stolen. Entrance polls taken at the Iowa caucuses on Monday evening showed that a majority of respondents don’t think Biden was elected legitimately and that the ex-president would be fit for office even if he were convicted of a crime.

The GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, on Wednesday expressed bewilderment about how the GOP front-runner had transformed the belief system of his party. “I think a lot of people in this country are out of touch with reality and will accept anything Donald Trump tells (them),” Romney, who’s not running for reelection next year, told CNN’s Manu Raju. “There’s a lot of things about today’s electorate that I have a hard time understanding.”

From the trial to the trail

Ahead of his Granite State return, Trump spent all day in court as Carroll testified in a case that will decide how much he must pay her over defamatory statements.

In the first trial last year, a jury found that Trump sexually abused her – sufficient to hold him liable for battery – and defamed her and awarded her $5 million for statements he made in 2022. But the jury did not find that Carroll proved he raped her. Kaplan said that verdict will carry over to this defamation trial – over statements Trump made as president in 2019 – so this trial is limited to damages.

“To have the president of the United States, one of the most powerful persons on Earth, calling me a liar for three days and saying I’m a liar 26 times — I counted them — it ended the world that I had been living in,” Carroll said referring to statements Trump made in 2019. Trump claims he had no idea who Carroll was until she alleged he raped her in a luxury department store in 1996, and he denies all wrongdoing in this and every other case against him.

After Carroll’s lawyer complained that Trump could be heard saying things like “it’s a witch hunt” and “it really is a con job” during her testimony, Kaplan warned that Trump could be removed from the courtroom. “I would love it,” Trump said.

“I know you would,” Kaplan said. “You just can’t control yourself in this circumstance apparently.”

Ty Cobb, a former White House lawyer for Trump, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Wednesday that the ex-president has no official role at the trial and that he simply wanted to use it for his own purposes. “He’s just there for the show and the free publicity,” Cobb said. “This is Trump at his worst.”

While the former president has anchored his 2024 campaign to accusations that he is a victim of persecution from the Biden administration and legal authorities, there is growing evidence that he’s enjoying allowances that wouldn’t typically be available to other Americans who behave in such fashion before a judge.

This attitude is consistent with Trump’s apparent belief that rules that apply to other Americans don’t constrain him. In an appeal in his federal election interference case, for instance, he’s arguing that ex-presidents have absolute immunity for actions taken in office. And in his civil fraud trial in Manhattan, he has also shown contempt for Judge Arthur Engoron’s authority.

Trump is always pushing the limits of acceptable behavior.

“Because even the most notorious defendants have a constitutional right to speak freely, judges will often give parties a few warnings before holding them in contempt,” said Elliot Williams, a CNN legal analyst.

“That aside, it’s just remarkable how much the former president has gotten away with in court. Even as a candidate for office, who is entitled to far more latitude than the rest of us who aren’t, he’s really pushed it at this point.”

Related Articles

Back to top button