Echoing Their Client, Trump’s Lawyers Pursue an Absolutist Defense

Donald J. Trump is a thrice-married man accused of covering up a sex scandal with a porn star after the world heard him brag about grabbing women by their genitals.

But when Mr. Trump’s lawyers introduced him to a jury at his Manhattan criminal trial this week, they dwelt on a different dimension: “He’s a husband. He’s a father. And he’s a person, just like you and just like me.”

That half-hour opening statement encapsulated the former president’s influence over his lawyers and their strategy. It reflected specific input from Mr. Trump, people with knowledge of the matter said, and it echoed his absolutist approach to his first criminal trial.

And while defendants often offer feedback to their lawyers, this particular hands-on client could hamstring them.

Others might concede personal failings so their lawyers can focus solely on holes in the prosecution’s evidence — on television, it’s often a version of “My client might not be a nice guy, but he’s no criminal.”

But that time-honored tactic is not available to a defendant who is also the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a man who despises weakness and is allergic to anything but praise from the people around him. So Mr. Trump’s legal strategy mirrors his political talking points as his lawyers portray the case as an unjust assault on the former president’s character.

Since he was indicted in Manhattan, Mr. Trump has questioned the very notion that anything untoward occurred, deploying a mantra: “no crime.” His lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, followed that blueprint in his opening statement, asking jurors, “What on earth is a crime?” and sprinkling in other Trump-esque phrases, including that the former president had “built a very large, successful company.”

People in Mr. Trump’s legal orbit have privately observed that the effort to humanize him might be a tough sell to a jury in New York, his hometown, where his presidency was wildly unpopular and his sexual dalliances were gossip-page staples.

But as the trial grinds on in the weeks ahead, legal experts said, the defense team will need to walk a fine line to appease both of its audiences: 12 jurors and a singular defendant.

“Trying the case to your client’s vanity, rather than to the jury, is a losing game,” said J. Bruce Maffeo, a former federal prosecutor.

Despite their client’s whims and wishes, Mr. Trump’s lawyers have deployed some conventional tactics to poke holes in the prosecution’s core accusation — that he falsified records to conceal a hush-money payment to the porn star, Stormy Daniels. And the lawyers, known as skilled litigators, some former prosecutors themselves, appear to have scored points.

Mr. Blanche, the lawyer who delivered the opening statement, urged the jury to “use common sense,” arguing that Mr. Trump is accused of falsifying the sort of back-office paperwork that a president would never bother touching. He also noted that the prosecution’s star witness is a felon and an “admitted liar.” And Mr. Blanche’s colleague, Emil Bove, grilled the prosecution’s first witness on Friday, pointing out a potential inconsistency in his story.

Such traditional techniques can be effective without undercutting Mr. Trump’s self-image. Roland G. Riopelle, another former prosecutor, who spent three decades as a defense lawyer, noted that “part of being a lawyer and being in a service business is pleasing the client — and I’m sure this client is difficult to please.”

Mr. Trump is known to be mercurial and prone to outbursts. In private, he has dressed down lawyers in several of his cases, even questioning their entire strategy just minutes before they were set to appear in court, people who have seen him in action say.

And inside the courtroom at two recent civil trials, he badgered lawyers, directing them to object at inopportune moments, muttering grievances into their ears and twice storming away from the defense table. Once, Mr. Trump exhorted his lawyer, Alina Habba, to “get up” as he banged her arm with the back of his hand.

Those cases ended in defeat. Judges have said outright that the former president’s courtroom conduct — and refusal to accept any responsibility — only hurt him. The judge in a civil fraud case brought against Mr. Trump and his company wrote that the “complete lack of contrition” from the defendants “borders on pathological.”

Inside the criminal courthouse, Mr. Trump has been better behaved, and more subdued, save for one episode during jury selection that drew a rebuke from the judge. Mr. Blanche also appears to be resisting some of his client’s interjections; when Mr. Trump poked Mr. Blanche on the shoulder at the defense table, he shook his head and brushed off the former president.

The pestering is unsurprising from a man who values control and is unaccustomed to sitting still. And Mr. Trump, whose litigious streak has thrust him in and out of courtrooms for decades, knows more about legal proceedings than the average defendant.

But he is hardly a master of procedure, and this case presents a unique test to an armchair litigator: After years of filing and fighting lawsuits, it is his first criminal trial. With three other criminal cases against him mired in delay, it might be the only one he faces before Election Day, underscoring the stakes of the proceeding.

Mr. Trump, who faces up to four years in prison, is charged with 34 felony counts, one for each record he is accused of falsifying.

Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, for now at least, have the upper hand, enjoying a set of salacious facts, a list of insider witnesses and a jury pool drawn from an overwhelmingly Democratic county.

This week, they elicited testimony from the former publisher of The National Enquirer, David Pecker, who said he and Mr. Trump orchestrated a plot to conceal sex scandals that could have derailed his 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Pecker told the jury how he bought and buried a story from a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump, and helped set in motion the payoff to Ms. Daniels.

On cross-examination, Mr. Bove implied that the prosecution’s case strained credulity and suggested that the former publisher, rather than doing anything so grand as conspiring with a presidential candidate, was engaged in business as usual: paying sources and making coverage decisions that benefited his magazines.

Mr. Blanche offered a similar nothing-to-see-here defense during the opening statement. “They put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime,” he said of the conspiracy allegation. “You’ll learn it’s not.”

At its climax, Mr. Blanche’s opening statement took aim at Michael D. Cohen, the star prosecution witness who paid Ms. Daniels the hush money in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, silencing her story of a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen is expected to testify that he acted at Mr. Trump’s direction to avoid damaging his campaign. And when Mr. Trump reimbursed him for the $130,000 hush-money payment, Mr. Cohen is expected to say, the former president authorized his company to falsify internal records to disguise the true nature of the repayment.

Mr. Blanche assailed Mr. Cohen’s credibility in the opening statement, noting that the former fixer had previously pleaded guilty to federal crimes, including for his role in the hush-money payment. He described Mr. Cohen as an “obsessed” former employee seeking revenge, arguing that it was he, not Mr. Trump, who was responsible for the records.

Mr. Blanche also cast doubt on Ms. Daniels, characterizing her as an opportunist out for a payday. He contended that if she testified, it would be nothing more than a distraction, since she was not involved in the false records at the heart of the case.

“She doesn’t know anything about the charged 34 counts in this case,” he told the jury during his opening statement. “Her testimony, while salacious, does not matter.”

But Mr. Blanche took a step further, and denied that Mr. Trump had sex with Ms. Daniels, echoing a claim he has consistently made since the story first became public when he was president. He also accused Ms. Daniels of all but trying to extort Mr. Trump, drawing an objection from prosecutors that was sustained by the judge.

“There were all kinds of salacious allegations going out, going around about President Trump, and it was damaging to him and damaging to his family,” he said.

That argument might play well on the campaign trial, but it might cost the defense credibility at the courthouse.

Whether Mr. Trump and Ms. Daniels had sex was irrelevant to the underlying charges, legal experts said, noting that the defense’s effort to portray Mr. Trump as a family man might not resonate with the jury, which includes five women and two lawyers.

During his opening, Mr. Blanche explained somewhat awkwardly to the jury that Mr. Trump’s lawyers call him President Trump because “this is a title that he has earned because he was our 45th president.”

“Todd Blanche is an experienced enough trial lawyer to know that starting off with a homily towards his client and describing him as a family man is not likely to resonate with a New York jury,” Mr. Maffeo, the former federal prosecutor, said.

In the hallway outside the courtroom on Friday, Mr. Trump wished his wife, Melania, a happy birthday and said that he would travel to Florida to spend the evening with her.

“It’d be nice to be with her, but I’m at a courthouse for a rigged trial,” he added.

He ignored several questions from reporters including what he was doing for his wife’s birthday, and whether he had cheated on her with Ms. McDougal.

Kate Christobek contributed reporting.

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