Rousing a sleeping giant: Trump perks up as testimony begins in hush money trial

No one will ever accuse former President Donald Trump of being woke. But over a few hours Monday, he transformed from an uninterested observer at his own hush money trial — eyes shut at times — to a highly attentive defendant-in-chief.

Maybe it was the chance to stare the full jury in the eyes, which he did when the jurors sat in their box — against the wall to his right — and when they entered and exited the courtroom. Perhaps it was onetime ally and alleged co-conspirator David Pecker testifying against him from a dozen or so feet away. Or it could just have been that all the talk was finally about him — after jury selection and arguments over legal points last week.

Sitting in a wood-paneled courtroom in Manhattan seemingly designed to induce sleep — like a 1950s junior high school or any branch office of a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles — Trump leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes at the start of the fifth day of his trial. But after New York state Judge Juan Merchan dispensed with rote procedural matters, including a long set of instructions for jurors, Trump began to focus more intently on the other key players in the room.

He stared straight ahead during prosecutor Matthew Colangelo’s opening statement, willfully refusing to look at an adversary who previewed the case for the jury. Trump conspired with onetime “fixer” Michael Cohen and Pecker, the former tabloid publisher, to stop pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels from publicly accusing him of having had an affair with her, Colangelo alleged.

Then he covered up … that scheme by lying in his New York business records,” Colangelo said, adding that the full set of actions amounted to “an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of a presidential election” and “conceal that illegal election fraud.”

No one could snooze through that.

Merchan, chin between his thumb and forefinger, twisted his seat toward the jury box and shifted his gaze — pingpong style — from jurors to prosecutor as he rocked back and forth lightly in his chair.

Trump finally recast his eyes once Colangelo turned the floor over to defense lawyer Todd Blanche for his opening statement. Trump isn’t just a former president or the Republican nominee for president in 2024, Blanche said as he aimed to frame his client as a peer of the jurors.

“He’s also a man,” Blanche said. “He’s a husband. He’s a father. He’s a person, just like you and just like me.”

As his own lawyer spoke, it was unclear at times from the closed-circuit telecast inside the courtroom when Trump looked at jurors and when he looked at Blanche. The head-on frame of Trump didn’t include the jury box. But viewed from behind, the shifting angle of his profile showed that he split time between focusing on the jury and on Blanche.

For most of the day, his mouth was drawn in a familiar and serious expression that betrayed no emotion, even as his lawyer began to tear down Cohen’s credibility with the jury.

“I submit to you that he cannot be trusted,” Blanche said of Cohen, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he was still in Trump’s good graces.

Blanche also countered the prosecution with more than a testament to Cohen’s checkered history with the truth and Trump’s membership in the clubs of man, father, husband and humanity.

“The story that you just heard” from prosecutors, he said, “you will learn is not true, and at the end of this trial there will be plenty of reasonable doubt.” For Trump to be convicted, all 12 jurors must decide that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Without any doubt, Monday, his interest grew as Pecker took the stand as the prosecution’s first witness. Pecker, the former chief of American Media, is a central figure because, prosecutors allege, he agreed to help by promoting bad stories about Trump’s 2016 opponents, running articles praising Trump and, most important, helping Trump silence those who would tell negative tales about him.

Pecker didn’t get through much of his testimony before Merchan adjourned the trial for the day. The Passover holiday and a juror’s need for emergency dental work conspired to force the pause.

But as Pecker testified, Trump leaned forward into the defense table, spoke animatedly with lawyer Emil Bove and furiously scribbled notes on a piece of paper that he shared with Bove and Blanche. His entire demeanor had changed over the course of a day, hinting that he plans to be an active participant in his trial going forward.

In a courthouse hallway, Trump ripped into prosecutors for pursuing the trial.

“It’s a case as to bookkeeping, which is a very minor thing in terms of the law, in terms of all the violent crime,” he said. “It’s very unfair. … I should be allowed to campaign.”

Prosecutors say a campaign — the 2016 version — compelled him to pay hush money to Daniels and then cover it up with fictitious records.

Now, the sleeping giant is awake.

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