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Trump trial tests his campaign strategy of embracing bad publicity

In the midst of his New York hush money trial, Republican former president Donald Trump is testing the boundaries of the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Even if you are running for the highest office in the land.
Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 11:04 IST
Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 11:04 IST

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New York: Meetings with foreign dignitaries at Trump Tower. A staged visit to a convenience store in the New York City Democratic stronghold of Harlem. Daily remarks broadcast on national cable television from outside the courtroom, and a blizzard of angry posts on his Truth Social platform.

In the midst of his New York hush money trial, Republican former president Donald Trump is testing the boundaries of the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Even if you are running for the highest office in the land.

Making his third White House run, Trump is using the elevated media attention to amplify his claims of judicial persecution while simultaneously trying to appear presidential by meeting leaders or envoys from US allies, who have proven willing to call on him despite his facing dozens of charges in four separate criminal cases.

Media are barred from televising Trump's trial and he is a mute observer in the proceedings. Before the trial started on April 15, debate centered on how Trump would balance his candidacy with his dual role as a criminal defendant trapped in court out of public view for most of four days a week.

His movements curtailed, Trump and his campaign have capitalized on the "audience of millions" afforded by cameras that follow his every move, said Republican consultant Jeanette Hoffman, including his staged visits to the convenience store, or bodega, in Harlem and with union workers at a construction site in Midtown Manhattan.

"No campaign would want to have their candidate in the courtroom instead of with voters on the campaign trail," Hoffman said. "But I also think they're smart to maximize their moments of support in front of the camera during the trial."

Still, Trump has not had a campaign rally since the trial started, although two are planned for next week in the battleground states of Michigan and Wisconsin. An incoming storm forced him to abruptly postpone a North Carolina rally on April 20. On his one day off from the trial this week he played golf.

Opinion polls suggest that however Trump tries to make the best of a bad situation, the trial carries political risks. They show some Republican voters could turn against him if he becomes a convicted felon, costing him crucial support in a close Nov. 5 election rematch with Democratic incumbent Joe Biden.

The tawdry details being aired at the trial - the case revolves around payoffs to women Trump is alleged to have slept with - could repel the women voters he needs to win in November, said Tricia McLaughlin, former communications director for former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

Embracing the 'split screen'

The Biden White House has embraced a split-screen effect, seeking to draw a sharp contrast between Trump the criminal defendant with Biden the president talking up his work on behalf of Americans in battleground states that decide U.S. elections.

Trump has also taken to Truth Social, his social media platform where he has just shy of 7 million followers, to portray the trial as a "witch hunt" and election interference while accusing the judge of being conflicted.

He unleashed a barrage of 74 posts on April 15, when the trial kicked off with jury selection, more than double his daily average this year, according to an analysis by Josephine Lukito, an assistant professor at University of Texas at Austin.

More important than the limited readership of Truth Social, political analysts say, is the amplifying effect of TV broadcasters which regularly report on Trump's posts, some of which prosecutors say have violated the judge's gag order prohibiting attacks on witnesses.

However, Trump's repeated accusations of a witch hunt could have diminishing returns in the form of less media coverage if he persists in saying the same thing every day.

Nevertheless, "the idea that he is silenced is a joke," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "What the trial is giving him is the opportunity to bookmark his appearances with on-camera access, underscored by Truth Social."

Trump faces criminal charges in New York of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, a move prosecutors say was meant to influence the 2016 election.

When the charges were first announced a year ago Trump immediately began campaigning on them, painting himself as a victim of a two-tiered justice system that targeted Republicans. Prosecutors have dismissed the claims as untrue.

Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt predicted the case would backfire. "As this witch-hunt continues, President Trump's support from Americans of all backgrounds will continue to grow as they watch Joe Biden and the Democrats put on this bogus show trial six months before the election," she said.

The charges were brought by the Manhattan district attorney, an elected Democrat; the Biden administration is not involved.

Mixing Harlem with foreign policy

Trump's trial has not deterred some foreign dignitaries from stopping by his home in Trump Tower to see him, allowing his aides to orchestrate a series of campaign-friendly moments that show him engaged in major issues such as the war in Ukraine.

Polish President Andrzej Duda and former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso have held talks with Trump there, while British Foreign Secretary David Cameron met him at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort the week before the trial started.

But it was Trump's visit last week to the Harlem bodega that stood out for Republican strategist Charlie Gerow, who is not involved in the Trump campaign.

Gerow said it was a remarkable feat to orchestrate a stop in an area generally unfriendly to Republicans and have the resulting coverage be positive.

"The little side trip to the bodega last week was pure political genius," he said.

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Published 27 April 2024, 11:04 IST

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