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Trump Is Now Raging at His Own Lawyer—and Wrecking a Big MAGA Fantasy

Over on Fox News, even Trump’s naps are a power move. The reality is different—and no one knows it more than Trump himself.

Seth Wenig/Pool/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump appears in court in New York City, on April 30.

Because Donald Trump must always be seen as wielding absolute mastery over his hapless, flailing opponents, he and his propagandists want you to believe his hush-money trial in Manhattan has proven nothing but a smashing political success for him.

On Monday night, Trump posted a video on social media featuring Fox personality Jesse Watters gushing that his trial may win him the White House. Trump also promoted a video of Fox’s Jeanine Pirro insisting that it showcases his ability to “withstand pressure.” Other Fox figures have spun Trump’s buffoonish outbreaks of narcolepsy in court as proof he’s Owning the Libs: Certain of acquittal, he can do some power-napping while showing the trial the contempt it deserves.

Trump himself, however, doesn’t appear to be even remotely this confident—at least in private. The New York Times reports that behind the scenes, Trump has been angrily venting about one of his lawyers, Todd Blanche, ever since the trial began:

He has griped that Mr. Blanche, a former federal prosecutor and veteran litigator, has not been following his instructions closely, and has been insufficiently aggressive. Mr. Trump wants him to attack witnesses, attack what the former president sees as a hostile jury pool, and attack the judge, Juan M. Merchan.

Trump would not be so angry with his lawyer if he thought the trial were going as well as his spinners say it is. Indeed, this saga shows how deeply flimsy the vast illusion that MAGA propagandists have woven around Trump and his legal travails has truly become.

Trump’s trial “keeps the former president disciplined, structured, and away from his tongue-wagging rallies,” Watters enthused in the video that Trump promoted. By this Watters meant that the prosecution is keeping Trump quiet behind a courtroom table.

You might wonder if Watters accidentally committed heresy in suggesting Trump’s rally performances might occasionally be less than politically perfect. But Watters avoided this pitfall by quickly adding that having fewer rallies denies the media “an opportunity to twist Trump’s words.” If the rallies ever create political problems, it’s only due to the Fake News media. By temporarily pausing them, the trial is owning the media, and the media doesn’t even know it.

Here in the real world, according to the Times, Trump is angry at Blanche, his lead lawyer in the case, because he isn’t more aggressively attacking witnesses, jurors, and the presiding judge. It’s likely that Trump—who in his own twisted way harbors powerful instincts about political theatrics—grasps that the trial is depicting him as a diminished, constrained, sordid figure who is not in charge of events, and badly wants his lawyer to do more to undermine the legitimacy of the proceedings.

That’s far from the fearsome, dominant figure depicted in MAGA propaganda about the trial. Note that both Watters and Pirro insist Trump is shining in the role of defendant. They are trying to depict Trump as simultaneously a victim and a formidable warrior, one who is fighting back against corrupt, powerful forces that are persecuting him. Similarly, as Media Matters’ Matt Gertz details, Fox figures praising Trump’s courtroom naps are practically painting them as acts of heroic defiance against an illegitimate prosecution.

Now, it’s true that this affair might be weaker than the cases against Trump over his insurrection attempt and theft of state secrets. But experienced prosecutors persuasively argue that it’s a straightforward case: Trump engaged in falsifying business records—with the intent to commit or conceal other election-related and tax-related crimes—which makes that falsification a felony. This is serious, likely criminal corruption that helped Trump deceive the American people and scam his way into the presidency.

Yet Trump wants his lawyer to treat the prosecution as wholly lacking in legitimacy. The Times reports:

He has vented to others that he does not have “a Roy Cohn,” a reference to his notoriously ruthless former lawyer. Mr. Cohn, who represented Mr. Trump in his formative business years, was repeatedly indicted and ultimately disbarred.

Trump wants a lawyer who treats any and all legal actions directed at Trump as worthy of nothing short of total-war tactics. As journalist Timothy O’Brien chronicles in his book TrumpNation, that’s exactly what he appreciated about Cohn. “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” Trump told O’Brien. “He brutalized for you.”

On Tuesday, Judge Merchan held Trump in contempt of court for violating his gag order with public attacks on witnesses and jurors. The principle at work here is that such attacks undermine the legal system and the rule of law, and that there will be consequences for this. But Trump wants Blanche to go further in that direction, to place himself at maximal risk on Trump’s behalf.

What’s remarkable is that Blanche has already been reprimanded by Merchan for defending Trump’s right to violate the gag order. But to Trump, that’s still not enough. Just as Trump belittled William Barr after his attorney general endorsed him, simply because Barr wouldn’t literally help him steal the 2020 election, Trump demands that his current lawyer must show a level of devotion and sacrifice that is quasi-absolute. Blanche must attack witnesses, the jury, and the judge—in effect, he must treat the system itself as irredeemably corrupt.

“Trump will never be satisfied with a lawyer who doesn’t share the same contempt for the rule of law that he does,” O’Brien told me. “That’s what he took from Roy Cohn.” From Cohn onward, O’Brien added, this became Trump’s “expectation from every other lawyer.”

The truth is that no one knows what will happen in this trial. It’s certainly possible Trump will get acquitted, giving him a political boost. But a conviction seems quite plausible, and it’s likely voters will punish him for it, as polls suggest they will.

Either way, here’s what we know right now: Trump is not wielding absolute mastery over events. Trump’s own lawyers are not treating his trial as fundamentally illegitimate. Voters outside the MAGA information universe regard the charges against him as serious, and they see the other prosecutions against him in a similarly grave light. A whole lot of people will likely see Trump’s sneering dismissal of these proceedings—the dozing off, the attacks on jurors, the rage fits against the supposed unfairness of it all—as whiny entitlement, as contempt for the very notion that he should ever be held accountable for anything.

And as his private anger at his lawyer suggests, despite all the MAGA mythmaking to the contrary, no one is more aware of all this than Trump himself.