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Vintage Trump remarks after convictions renew dilemma for news media and voters alike

Former U.S. President Donald Trump holds a press conference following the verdict in his hush-money trial at Trump Tower on May 31, 2024 in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Former U.S. President Donald Trump holds a press conference following the verdict in his hush-money trial at Trump Tower on May 31, 2024 in New York City.

Former President Donald Trump stood in the lobby of Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan Friday morning looking somehow ill at ease in his own building.

He wore his signature suit, shirt and tie and stood alone at a lectern with five American flags and a cold stone wall behind him. Gone was the usual human backdrop of flag-waving supporters seen at MAGA rallies. He stood alone, without script or teleprompter, armed only with two sheets of paper and a look of barely controlled rage.

It was billed as a press conference to respond to the jury verdict that had convicted him on 34 charges the day before. But it was more a speech than a press conference. A contingent of reporters with cameras stood a few yards away, but Trump spoke without interruption and took no questions.

Not far off, a small crowd of supporters including some family members applauded and cheered at intervals. Trump never quite settled on which group he was addressing, connecting only sporadically with the live TV broadcast camera. Some of the TV news channels eventually cut away while he rambled on for a total of 33 minutes.

It was the same location Trump spoke from nine years ago this month when he descended “the golden escalator” to the same lobby and announced his first campaign for the Republican nomination for president. The scene that day featured Melania and Ivanka Trump, both all in white, and a forest of cameras held aloft beneath Trump’s elevated stage. Everything about those theatrics described a different time in a different world.

Trump would recall that occasion on Friday when he almost immediately started attacking immigrants, as he had in 2015.

But first, he had to deal with the moment — and the reason he was here.

“This is a case where if they can do this to me, they can do this to anyone,” Trump said, referring to the prosecutors and Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. “These are bad people. These are in many cases, I believe, sick people.”

It was an echo of Trump’s frequent claim to his rally crowds that they and not him are the targets of all his legal woes and political adversaries.

But Trump reserved most of his vitriol for Judge Juan Merchan, who would not move the trial out of New York and denied most of the motions filed by Trump’s attorneys.

“We just went through one of many experiences where we had a conflicted judge, highly conflicted. There's never been a more conflicted judge," Trump said.

Trump has long tried to make an issue of Merchan’s total of $35 in contributions to Democrats in 2020 and the Democratic ties of the judge’s daughter. At Merchan’s request, both issues had been reviewed by the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics and his refusal to recuse was upheld on appeal.

But Trump was back at it on Friday, and the accusations of bias were just getting started.

“As far as the trial itself, it was very unfair,” said Trump. “We weren’t allowed to use our election expert under any circumstances.”

Merchan actually did allow that expert to testify with the stipulation that the prosecution could also bring in its own expert. At that point, Trump’s team decided not to call the witness.

“You saw what happened to some of the witnesses that were on our side, they were literally crucified by this man,” Trump said, again referring to the judge.

“He looks like an angel but he’s really a devil,” Trump said of Merchan. “He looks so nice and soft."

Hearing Roy Cohn in Trump's words

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on Friday following the verdict in his hush-money trial in New York City.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at Trump Tower on Friday following the verdict in his hush-money trial in New York City.

Trump’s weeks of vituperating Merchan recall the maxim he had received half a century ago from a lawyer named Roy Cohn, who was known for saying: “Don’t tell me what the law says, tell me who the judge is.”

Cohn had a career matched by few in the legal profession. The son of a judge, he graduated from both Columbia and Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and went to work for the Justice Department. He helped to convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of helping the Soviets steal nuclear secrets. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover then recommended Cohn to Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who hired him to help with his hunt for communists in the government.

Cohn went on to spend 30 years representing many of the biggest names in New York, including athletes, entertainers, a cardinal and organized crime bosses. In the 1970s he represented Trump’s family real estate business when it faced federal charges for racial discrimination.

Trump himself continued to rely on Cohn for years thereafter. Even after reaching the White House in 2017, he complained that none of his many lawyers fought for him like “my Roy Cohn.”

Trump's well-worn playbook of false statements

Trump did not let his most recent court reversal take up all his on-camera time on Friday. With live TV coverage rolling, at least for a while, he veered off his latest court reversal to attack the man he wants to replace in the White House in November.

Calling Election Day Nov. 5 “the most important day in American history,” Trump blamed Biden for all his legal travails. He said the trial in New York had been orchestrated “in Washington” to protect the incumbent administration, which he called “a fascist state.”

Trump has made these accusations before, offering no form of evidence, as he again did not on Friday. But he used the allegation of Biden involvement to pivot to attacking Biden on immigration.

It was a kind of reprise of what might be called Trump’s greatest hit. In his speech in this same venue in 2015, he had stunned the political world with his language about immigrants at the U.S. border with Mexico: “They’re not sending their best ... they’re bringing drugs, they’re rapists.”

Trump on Friday broadened his assault to include a number of other specific countries and nationalities sending “millions” who were “pouring in” unchallenged across “open borders." He mentioned Congo in Africa and China in particular.

He said the prisons of Venezuela had been “emptied out” and that countries were sending people from their mental institutions.

He offered no evidence or sources for any of these statements.

And while some of his assertions took the form of casual, unproven superlatives such as “record numbers of terrorists” entering the country, some were downright false statements starkly at odds with the facts.

Early in his Friday remarks, when he criticized the Manhattan district attorney, he had said crime was “rampant” in the city and painted it in apocalyptic terms. Crime statistics in New York City are actually much lower today than in the 1990s, a decade in which Trump ally Rudy Giuliani was elected to his two terms as mayor. Shootings and homicides are down in particular in the past two years.

But this species of misstatement or disinformation has been part of the Trump arsenal for some time. He often raises rhetorical questions and makes sweeping statements that seem to have sprung from an alternative reality.

His talent for selling his own version of reality posed a challenge to the news media as far back as his years as the star of a TV “reality show” called The Apprentice. Trump was in the middle of his 14 seasons with the show when he began publicly questioning whether President Barack Obama had been born in the U.S.

It was just this kind of falsehood — picked up and promoted by countless commenters on cable TV, websites and social media — that made Trump a political force before he was an actual candidate. And when, in the fall campaign of 2016, he informed the world that he had himself laid to rest the “birther” issue (which he blamed on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign), it forced many in the mainstream media to reexamine their longstanding aversion to the word “lie.”

By the end of Trump’s term in office, the news media had come to routinely label many of his claims as false — especially his denial of his defeat in the 2020 election. Some had also taken to labeling as lies the Trump statements they believed he had to know were false.

But Friday at Trump Tower was another reminder that as the November election gets closer and the political season comes to predominate, Trump can be expected to test and exceed the boundaries of fact and fiction one again.

Are we better prepared to deal with it this time?

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.