Advertisement

Team Trump Begs Him to Keep His Mouth Shut at NYC Criminal Trial

Several lawyers and political advisers for Donald Trump tell Rolling Stone that they want him to keep his mouth shut during his upcoming criminal trial in Manhattan, and say they’ve made gentle internal pushes to try to persuade him to heed their pleas. It remains an open question, of course, whether the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee will listen and suppress his impulse to turn his remarkably high-stakes hush-money trial into a self-destructive, Trumpian media carnival.

The criminal case, brought by the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, stems from secret payments, including to porn star Stormy Daniels, that prosecutors allege candidate Trump ordered to be paid out to suppress salacious and potentially embarrassing news stories in order to boost his 2016 campaign. One of Bragg’s key witnesses is Michael Cohen, Trump’s former longtime lawyer and fixer. Trump and his attorneys have emphatically denied the premise of the case, while Bragg is now describing Trump’s alleged actions in 2016 not as mere concealment of sex scandals but as election interference.

The New York criminal case has become even more important now, after the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority helped delay Trump’s federal election subversion trial, likely until after Election Day 2024. It’s now highly likely that Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial will be the only one that occurs before voters head to the polls in November.

For months, some of Trump’s closest advisers and senior campaign officials have grown anxious about various polls indicating that a criminal conviction this year would greatly harm his chances at winning back the White House. Though Team Trump views the Manhattan DA’s case as easily the weakest of the four major criminal cases against him, they dread the idea of Trump creating a glut of negative publicity at a New York City trial that turns off swing voters — or even helping prosecutors’ case.

The New York trial is set to start later this month, amid Trump’s expected 2024 rematch against President Joe Biden. In recent weeks, attorneys and political consultants close to the former president have advised him not to testify, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter and another two people familiar with the situation, fearing it would create unnecessary drama and allow prosecutors to lay potential perjury traps for him.

Some have also directly counseled Trump to — given the gravity of a criminal trial — refrain from courtroom theatrics and indignant outbursts that defined some of his other court appearances, such as his recent disastrous New York civil fraud trial. This has included urging Trump to remain quiet in court, even — and perhaps especially — if his political enemies, such as Cohen or Daniels, are present and taking the stand.

Several of these attorneys and political aides have been in touch with one another, according to a screenshot of written communications reviewed by Rolling Stone, suggesting that they have been tag-teaming efforts to cautiously corral Trump into sticking to an extremely toned-down approach to this trial. The broad idea is to help “prevent him from talking his way into a mess,” either legally or politically, one Trump adviser says. Another person with direct knowledge of the situation says one message to the ex-president last month boiled down to persuading him to “please prove the media wrong” and give his foes “nothing” to work with at the Manhattan trial.

“The Trump team ought to assume that there is going to be a criminal conviction. It’s a terrible case, in my opinion … but any first-year law student could win a prosecution against Donald Trump in Manhattan, so they’re going to have to assume that they’re going to lose this case in front of a jury,” says celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who served on then-President Trump’s legal defense for his first impeachment.

“[My advice would be] focus on the appeal, not the trial, so in that case, you don’t have the client take the stand. I don’t see what Donald Trump would really have to add in testimony,” Dershowitz adds. “I think Trump is right to consider these cases political, and he is right to respond to these cases publicly by saying they’re political. But he shouldn’t give the other side any hook to hang their hats on by engaging in histrionics inside the courtroom, whether on the stand or seated at this table with his attorneys.”

In response to a request for comment on this story, Steven Cheung, the Trump campaign’s communications director, writes: “Nobody from President Trump’s team has advised what is alleged and the legal team does not share these absurd views peddled by cowardly unnamed sources. We won’t litigate this case in the media, and those who try [to] do so clearly are speaking from ignorance and stupidity.”

When those close to Trump have made these kinds of private appeals to the former president in recent months, they have typically gone out of their way to do so very gently, so as to not come off as scolding Trump, according to the four sources. One reason for this is because Trump is notorious for rebelling against attempts to contain him that he feels are condescending. It’s unclear if Trump will ultimately order his legal team — fronted by Susan Necheles and Todd Blanche in this case — to let him testify, or if he’ll heed his advisers’ warnings to remain uncharacteristically quiet and subdued while sitting in court.

In private conversations on the matter, Trump has often been noncommittal either way. But some recent efforts to softly beg Trump to not be, well, himself were met with a cold reception from the client. One person close to Trump tells Rolling Stone that earlier this year, they had mentioned to the former president that it would be an “awful” idea take the stand in Manhattan, due to the high risk of Trump upsetting the jury, and cautioned Trump and others in his inner orbit against making derogatory public remarks about the judge or his staff.

This source says that not long after this, they received a call from “a member of Trump’s legal team” chastising them for making these suggestions in a way that had apparently upset Trump. The source adds that they “don’t know how” word of their entreaty to the ex-president got back to his lawyers.

Trump attorneys’ so-called “Fyre Festival” strategy in the New York civil fraud trial — using the trial as an attempt to merely bludgeon Trump’s adversaries and posture in court — may not have been the deciding factor in Judge Arthur Engoron’s $454 million judgment against the former president and his business empire. But it certainly didn’t help him, and it’s doubtful that a repeat performance in his criminal case would achieve anything more.

While some in Trump’s immediate orbit seek to gag him as best they can, his attorneys are also pursuing another strategy that has so far worked well in managing the former president’s myriad legal issues: trying to delay the trial. In a motion filed on Monday, Necheles and Blanche sought to use the Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear arguments about whether Trump is entitled to immunity in his federal cases as a tool to try and push back the Manhattan criminal case.

Trump’s alleged conduct in the Manhattan hush-money case took place before his presidency and is being prosecuted by Manhattan district attorney Bragg, rather than federal prosecutors. Nonetheless, the two attorneys argued on Monday that Judge Juan Merchan should postpone the trial until after the Supreme Court has ruled on whether Trump is entitled to federal immunity for official acts he committed as president, because some of the statements that prosecutors intend to introduce in the New York case involve things he said during his presidency.

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone