Calmes: Who’s on trial in Manhattan, an ex-president or a mob boss?

Donald Trump has fussed about many things during his criminal trial in Manhattan: the judge, prosecutors, their relatives, witnesses, jurors and of course the media, for reporting on the sparse crowds outside.

Yet Trump of all people knows that his fellow New Yorkers are proudly blasé about celebrity goings-on. It shouldn’t be surprising that not much of a crowd forms at the courthouse where the Don has been in the dock. After all, if you’ve seen one trial of a mob boss in Gotham, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

And Trump’s trial — where he’s charged with fraudulently covering up pre-election hush money payments to Stormy Daniels in 2016, to keep voters in the dark about their alleged tryst — resembles nothing so much as a prosecution of yet another organized crime figure, even if it is, in fact, unprecedented: The first criminal case against a former U.S. president in history.

Lest anyone think the quick-to-complain Trump might grouse about being likened to gangsters, he draws the parallel himself, repeatedly.

“I’ve been indicted more than Alphonse Capone,” Trump boasted at a conservative conference in February. (Fact check: False, but he’s close.) He regularly, and admiringly, compares himself to ol’ “Scarface” at MAGA rallies. “He was seriously tough, right?” tough-guy Trump said to Iowa rally-goers in October. Last year on social media, he called Capone “the late great gangster.” Great?

The shtick might be funny if what underlies it weren’t so serious. As we head into the third week of the People of New York State vs. Donald J. Trump in that dingy courthouse so far removed from the Don’s usual gilt opulence, it’s downright disturbing to contemplate the similarities between his trial and that of a mob boss.

How can it be that this man is tied or ahead of President Biden in the polls? I remain confident Trump will pay a political price in time, as the sordidness of all this sinks in.

Perhaps the most distressing of the mob comparisons is this: The safety of jurors is a real concern. Their identities are secret to protect against intimidation or harm, and one juror was dismissed after confessing her fear. Former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance posted on X that she’s seen such trepidation for jurors only “in a case involving violent organized crime.”

And it’s not the first time for Trump. The jurors who in January found that he defamed writer E. Jean Carroll after she successfully sued him for sexual assault, also had their identities withheld. After that civil trial, federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan warned them, “My advice to you is that you never disclose that you were on this jury.” Chilling.

Former prosecutor and FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann noted on MSNBC that he’d last heard a judge similarly caution some jurors decades ago, after they convicted Genovese crime family boss Vincent Gigante. “It is remarkable,” he added, “ that that same admonition was said with respect to somebody who was the president of the United States.”

It’s tragic, actually. Trump once swore to uphold the rule of law; now he’s making a mockery of it and putting innocents and civil servants at risk.

There’s also worry for witnesses. Prosecutors won’t share their witness list with Trump’s defense team, an act that’s typically routine.

“Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses. We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. “I can’t fault them for that,” Judge Juan M. Merchan said, dismissing the appeals of Trump lawyer Todd Blanche.

Trump’s tweets earned him a gag order from Merchan against attacking witnesses as well as prosecutors, court staff and the judge’s and Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg’s families. Such gags are rare, except of course in trials of boorish mobsters.

The judge and prosecutors fear Trump will intimidate those he’s targeted, and perhaps spur some unhinged supporter to violence. (It’s not as if there is no precedent for that!) The threats Trump stokes also explain much of the heavy security around the courthouse.

A final mob connection: Trump’s demeanor in court — the practiced scowls captured in photos and courtroom sketches, and his wise-guy mutterings reported by journalists in the room. His model, Trump told biographer-turned-critic Tim O’Brien, is none other than the murderous mafioso John Gotti. “The thing he respected about Gotti,” O’Brien told MSNBC, “was that he … sat there in court and he looked at the jurors and he looked at the judge with a big F-U on his face.”

Trump’s mob modeling goes way back. His former lawyer Michael Cohen, a key witness against him, said Trump for decades ran his family company “much like a mobster would do.” Cohen, a self-described consigliere, admits to intimidating people and lying on Trump’s behalf. “He doesn’t give you orders,” Cohen told Congress in 2019. “He speaks in a code, and I understand the code.” Trump responded to Cohen’s testimony in mob-speak, natch, tweeting that his former lawyer was “a rat.”

The trial’s first witness, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, testified last week about his cooperation with Trump in 2016 to “catch and kill” prurient Trump stories before that year’s election. He repeatedly described Cohen warning him that “the boss” would be angry if Pecker didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

The mob mentality gives a particularly clear perspective on Trump’s claim earlier in 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Eight years later, he’s on trial for something less than murder, yet the upshot is the same: He’s banking that his voters don’t care.

He’s almost certainly right about most if not all of them. But Trump needs more than just his MAGA loyalists to win. Let’s hope this trial, whatever the outcome, leaves everyone else determined not to see a godfather in the White House again.