Trump’s team facing a new conundrum: How to stay on the trail during a weekslong criminal trial

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives on stage for a Get Out The Vote rally at the North Charleston Convention Center on February 14, 2024 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives on stage for a Get Out The Vote rally at the North Charleston Convention Center on February 14, 2024 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Win McNamee/Getty ImagesNew York CityCNN — 

One of Donald Trump’s longstanding complaints will become a reality on March 25: His legal peril will force him off the campaign trail – at least during the day.

The trial date, set Thursday by a judge in New York, is just a week after Trump’s campaign expects him to reach the delegate threshold to become the presumptive Republican nominee – and roughly seven months before voters will head to ballot box to cast their votes in the 2024 presidential election.

While Trump has spent the last year bouncing in and out of court houses in his various legal cases, almost all of these appearances have been voluntary other than his arraignments. The former president often opts to treat the courtroom as a campaign stop, speaking to cameras and ranting against what he has called “political persecution.”

Come March, Trump will no longer have a choice – he will be required to sit in the New York courtroom four days a week as he faces 34 criminal charges brought by District Attorney Alvin Bragg in an alleged hush-money scheme. The trial is expected to last for roughly six weeks, with court in session every weekday but Wednesdays, severely limiting Trump’s ability to campaign for president during that time.

And the New York trial may not be the last that keeps Trump off the campaign trail before the election, with two federal trials still possible this year, along with a case in Georgia that is still pending despite the trouble now facing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

While Trump may effectively bring an end to the GOP nominating fight before the criminal trial begins, the proceedings could disrupt the former president’s pivot to a general election matchup with President Joe Biden – dividing his attention between his legal battles and his political campaign.

During this primary season, the former president was far outpaced on the trail by his GOP rivals, often choosing to spend time at his Mar-a-Lago home or in a courtroom instead of visiting early voting states. Part of this, his advisers insist, was the enormous lead Trump held over his Republican opponents, a large lead that disappears in a potential rematch against Biden.

Trump has painted the cases brought against him as “election interference,” linking the unrelated impending trials as one unfounded conspiracy brought by Democrats and Biden to keep Trump from another term in the White House. Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche even echoed Trump’s rhetoric about election interference Thursday as he objected to the start date, but the judge made clear he was not going to delay – not just because of the election but because Trump has another three potential trials still looming in other jurisdictions.

‘Campaigning during the night’

While this rhetoric has served as a rallying cry for Republicans in the primary season, Trump’s team is grappling with how his criminal trials will play in a general election in which the former president will have to court independent voters to claim the White House, multiple people close to the former president told CNN.

“The big question mark that remains is, will seeing Trump in court – and the witnesses who will be paraded in – hurt him in the general (election),” a person close to Trump told CNN. “I think it’ll be less of a problem in the Bragg trial, but it’s still an issue they’ve yet to figure out.”

Some of Trump’s advisers, meanwhile, insist they remain confident that his legal troubles will continue to help his campaign – not just with primary voters, but with general election voters as well. Despite having some concerns immediately following his four indictments that the boost his campaign saw in fundraising in polling would only be short-lived, Trump has continued to enjoy some positive effects from his legal battles.

They also point to how many legal experts argue that the criminal hush money case is the weakest and believe having this trial go first will help solidify Trump’s support with voters who think he is facing what they are argue are too many criminal charges.

In private, however, Trump’s team recognizes that the necessities of court will likely affect the campaign, and provide further ammunition for Biden’s reelection efforts, people close to Trump said.

Trump claimed Thursday that he would still be able to campaign while attending the trial by doing so “in the evening.”

“I’ll be here during the day, and I’ll be campaigning during the night,” Trump said, suggesting Biden should do the same.

One senior adviser, however, hesitated at that proposal, calling such a schedule “unsustainable” and “exhausting” for the former president.

The New York criminal trial also presents another problem for Trump’s ability to create a media circus – cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. Thursday’s hearing likely previewed how the spring months in the courthouse will play out, with Trump finding his way to the camera in the hallway outside before and after the hearing to argue his case in the court of public opinion.

‘He has to be there’

Unlike Trump’s past visits to courtrooms – most of which were voluntary – the former president’s team anticipates that his attendance will be mandatory at most, if not all, of his trial in Manhattan, his advisers said.

“I think he has to be there. It’s a criminal trial, we expect it will be mandatory,” a senior Trump adviser told CNN.

At a pretrial hearing Thursday, Judge Juan Merchan said that he expected the trial to go on for six weeks.

With Trump sitting at his side looking on, Blanche tried to object to Merchan’s decision to begin the trial on March 25, arguing both that Trump had other three other criminal trials his lawyers had to prepare for and that keeping Trump in the courtroom would impede his presidential campaign.

Blanche said that the trial date was “unconstitutional,” pointing to the upcoming GOP primaries.

“President Trump says it all the time, and the media makes fun of him, but it’s election interference” to make Trump sit here in this courtroom, Blanche argued.

But the judge shut down the arguments, saying he’d already heard them and had made his ruling. The judge responded saying Trump would not be required to sit for two criminal trials at the same time.

“Certainly, I don’t want to violate his constitutional rights nor does anybody else,” Merchan said.

Blanche tried one more time at the very end of the hearing to make his case to the judge – and perhaps to Trump.

“We strenuously object to what is happening in this courtroom,” he said. “The fact that President Trump is going to now spend the next two months working on this trial instead of out on the campaign trail running for president, is something that should not happen in this country,” he said.

“What’s your legal argument?” Merchan asked.

“That’s my legal argument,” he responded.

“That’s not a legal argument,” Merchan said, ending the hearing and telling the lawyers – and the former president – he’d see them all on March 25.

Trump team sees NY case as weakest

While neither Trump nor his campaign want to face trial, many allies would rather see the New York hush money case go to trial than the other three criminal cases, with a belief that the case from Bragg, a Democrat, is the weakest and easiest to paint as politically motivated.

The campaign plans to use the trial to set the stage for its core political argument that these trials are purely political and designed to hurt Trump’s chances in a general election – an argument it has and will continue to use in all of the former president’s criminal and civil cases.

As Trump has demonstrated over the course of his campaign, he sees those fights as part of one larger conflict and has used his court challenges to rally support in the GOP primary.

“I think we’ve done a good job of managing the political schedule with the legal schedule,” a senior Trump adviser told CNN. “He’s been able to turn the legal stuff into a political positive.”

Trump’s advisers expect the former president to have enough delegates by March 19, following primary contests in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Ohio, to be considered the presumptive Republican nominee.

The general election could pose a different test for Trump, particularly if he is found guilty of a crime. Despite his dominant wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, 31% of Republican caucus-goers and 42% of GOP primary voters in the Granite State said Trump would not be fit for the presidency if convicted of a crime. Those findings underscore the importance of Trump’s strategy of delaying the criminal cases he is facing for as long as possible.

Before Trump entered the courtroom Thursday morning, he stopped at the camera in the hallway outside to speak. The former president complained that he was there – and not in South Carolina campaigning.

“How can you run for election and be sitting in a courthouse in Manhattan all day long? I’m supposed to be in South Carolina right now, where other people are, and where, again – this is where I should be. I shouldn’t be in a courthouse,” Trump said.

Of course, Trump did not have to be in the courtroom on Thursday. Merchan waived his appearance at his lawyer’s request for the pretrial hearing – though that was because Trump was considering attending a hearing in Georgia instead, where Willis is facing scrutiny.

In six weeks, however, Trump won’t have the same luxury of choosing where he wants to be four days a week.

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