Trump returns to spotlight in trial — but not on his terms

In this image from video, a video from Donald Trump is shown to senators as House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (Senate Television via AP) (Uncredited, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – His rallying cry to supporters has been dissected. His videos, press conferences and calls to Fox News have played on loop. His Twitter account is once again dominating news coverage, his missives read aloud in the Senate chamber.

More than three weeks removed from the White House, Donald Trump's voice is again permeating the nation's capital — but not on his terms.

Stripped of his social media megaphone, the former president has watched the searing opening days of his historic second impeachment trial unfold on television with none of his former tools for fighting back at his disposal. Instead, he will have to rely on a hastily assembled team of lawyers — whose initial appearance he panned — to present his defense against Democrats' charges Friday.

“I think the only thing I can remember, frankly, where he's been in such a weak position and unable really to change the story would be the bankruptcies in the early '90s," said Sam Nunberg, a former longtime Trump adviser.

Still, he argued that if Trump had access to Twitter, he would likely dig himself deeper into trouble.

In the days before the trial began this week, Trump was relatively disengaged from developments in Washington, spending his time golfing and plotting his future as he adjusts to the rhythms of a far more placid post-presidential life.

But Trump was quickly snapped out of that disengagement Tuesday as he watched the trial's opening arguments unfold.

Trump exploded at aides about the shoddy performances of his lawyers, complaining that they seem ill-prepared and looked lousy on television. And he worked the phones, demanding a more aggressive defense, according to people familiar with his reaction.

Trump's team and allies have assured him that he has more than enough Republican votes to acquit him of the Democrats’ charge that he incited the insurrection on Jan. 6. And they have convinced him that it is better he stay quiet to avoid the risk of saying something explosive that might alienate Senate jurors, including making his unfounded allegations of mass voter fraud a central argument of his defense. That means no media interviews, no blow-by-blow commentary, no call-ins to Fox News.

Trump’s inner circle acknowledged the two days of searing video had been damaging, but thought the Democrats’ case lost momentum on Thursday. Indeed, Trump was spotted back on the golf course by a CNN camera crew. What remained unclear: how and when Trump would respond to the verdict.

Trump's inner circle remains confident of acquittal, but there are concerns among allies about the lasting damage the trial could do to his already battered reputation, potentially diminishing his future standing and ability to exert influence over a party he has controlled with an iron fist.

Aides know that the powerful images being shown at the trial — and carried live on broadcast networks — are bound to reach beyond cable news-watching political junkies and reach low-information voters, which could further collapse Trump’s standing. In the end, more Republicans may be willing to break from him, and some of his supporters may desert him, his aides fear.

“If he doesn’t make a mid-course correction here, he’s going to lose this Super Bowl,” said Peter Navarro, a former White House economic adviser who remains close with Trump and has been urging him to ditch his current legal team and focus his case on the voter fraud allegations that have been dismissed by dozens of judges and state election officials, as well as Trump's former attorney general.

Trump is not expected to make any changes to his team, though David Schoen is expected to take the central role. Senior adviser Jason Miller said the legal team is expected to begin and conclude their argument Friday, using far less than their 16 hours of allotted time.

Even Trump loyalists have been surprised at how tight his grip has remained on the party since leaving office, with those who had rebuffed his attempts to overturn the election being met with fierce anger from the former president's still-loyal base.

But Wednesday's presentation, in particular, was a damning indictment, filled with searing, never-before-seen video and audio of the riot as Trump's supporters violently clashed with police, smashed their way into the Capitol building and roamed the hallowed halls of Congress, menacingly hunting for lawmakers and successfully halting the final tally of electoral votes.

That footage was interspliced with Trump's tweets and excerpts from his speeches as the House Democratic prosecutors methodically traced his monthslong effort to undermine his supporters’ faith in the election results, convince them the election had been stolen and push them to fight.

Through it all, Trump — who for decades described himself as the ultimate counterpuncher and his own best spokesperson — has been cut off from his former platforms. He has been banned from Twitter and Facebook. He no longer has a White House press corps on standby to chronicle his every utterance.

Even his post-presidential team's effort to communicate via traditional press releases has been hampered by technical difficulties that have resulted in frequent delays in emails landing in reporters’ inboxes.

“It changes the dynamics so much, the fact that the president doesn’t have that platform,” said Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin Republican governor who ran against Trump in 2016, referring to his social media bullhorns.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of the president's, said he had stressed to Trump that, while his team "will do better, can do better,” what matters is the outcome.

“I reinforced to the president: The case is over. It’s just a matter of getting the final verdict now," he said.

Walker said that, in the end, he hoped the trial would help reunite Republicans currently engaged in a fierce debate over the future of the party and the extent to which Trump should be embraced.

“No matter where people are at in terms of the president’s claims or concerns about election fraud or anything else, it’s really easy for Republicans in the Senate — and for that matter, any Republicans, be they elected or otherwise — to be against the impeachment and basing it on the most fundamental reason, which is just it’s a joke to try to impeach somebody who’s not in office anymore,” he said. “I think that’s a great unifier.”