It was, to a degree, inevitable.
Donald Trump’s story was curated by the New York City tabloids, the newspapers that magnified his wealth and his tawdry exploits while catapulting him to a type of celebrity that he eventually wielded to capture the highest office in the land.
But on Thursday, March 30, those same forces that turned Trump into a mix of caricature and fame resulted in him becoming the first ex-president in the history of the United States to be charged with a crime. The charges in the indictment set to be unsealed by the Manhattan district attorney — crimes connected to the accusation of using a fixer to pay hush money to a porn star over an affair — felt ripped straight from the pages of the 1980s New York Post and New York Daily News. Trump, as always, was the character at which to marvel or gawk.
The salacious spectacle will immediately become a defining one for the 2024 campaign. For Trump, it presents a chance to play victim again. For the current president, Joe Biden, it creates a favorable split screen: hosting policy events and demanding action on gun violence while scandal engulfs his predecessor. For Republicans, it foreshadows an early test on whether to rally behind the former president’s defense and unleash a wave of attacks on the prosecutor bringing the historic charges.
It also serves as a reminder. Despite Trump’s move to Florida and his efforts to return to Washington, he has never truly left New York.
Trump is a creature of the city, and spent years using its ravenous and hyper-competitive media market to propel himself from an unknown outer-borough developer into Manhattan’s glitzy high-society scene. He struggled gaining acceptance with the city’s blue-blooded elite. He was deemed too loud, too gauche. He bristled at the criticisms but ultimately didn’t care to change; or maybe he just couldn’t.
Trump liked being in the news pages. But he loved being in the gossip pages.
It was there he built his reputation as a rising force on Manhattan’s real estate scene, a budding celebrity who dated only the most beautiful women. He was obsessed with appearing in the papers, believing that all publicity was good publicity, certain that New Yorkers would want to buy one of his apartments in an effort to steal a piece of the life he was leading.
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado: I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do,” Trump wrote in his 1987 best-selling book, “The Art of the Deal.” “That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”
It was more than a little hyperbole. Convinced that his personal stardom was the best way to advertise his buildings, Trump began to sell his sex life, even if little of it was true. And to promote it, he’d at times shamelessly pretend to be his own spokesperson, calling reporters on the phone as a pretend publicist — just one who sounded an awful lot like Trump — to plug The Donald’s latest romantic interest.
He was willing to manipulate the media, pay for silence and court tawdry headlines with salacious behavior.
And then he met Stormy Daniels, a porn star, at a 2006 golf tournament.
By that point, Trump had enjoyed a resurgence of fame thanks to the success of his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” Daniels alleges the two had an affair and that, during the stretch run of the 2016 campaign, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid her $130,000 in “hush money” to keep her quiet about it.
Trump has denied the tryst but acknowledged personally reimbursing the Daniels payment. It’s a playbook that rings familiar for those who have followed his career in full: money and sex and the use of influence to squash unflattering stories. Only this time, the spectacle wasn’t just one for the tabloids but for the courts too. Two people familiar with the matter confirmed on Thursday that a charge was coming, the specifics of which were set to be revealed by the Manhattan district attorney in the coming days.
Like most Trump stories, this one has now reached a recognizable chapter: where the audience wonders how the protagonist escapes. Trump has faced plenty of doomsday moments before — bankruptcies, the Access Hollywood tape, impeachment and Jan. 6.
But the indictment against him is only just the beginning of his legal troubles. He faces a probe in Georgia over possible election interference, as well as investigations into his mishandling of classified documents and his role in inciting that Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump has called for protests and his aides have demanded fealty from his rivals. Already, many Republicans in leadership positions in the House have pledged to use their positions of power to investigate the investigators. The other prospective members of the Republican field have slammed the probe and party insiders believe that Trump could get a bump in GOP primary polls.
But privately, Republicans are also fearful that Trump’s legal woes won’t just curtail his ability to campaign next year but impact the party too. It’s a view shared by those watching closely from inside the White House, too.
In a series of discussions, senior White House aides have debated how to respond to a possible charge. The answer never changed: say nothing. Avoid being accused of trying to influence a criminal justice matter. And why get in the way if an opponent might be self-destructing?
Shortly after the news broke Thursday, the White House said it would not be commenting.
Plans could end up changing. If Trump’s followers heed his calls for violence, the White House would condemn such a behavior. And aides acknowledge that Biden has the tendency to go off script and may say something if asked by a reporter.
But for now, they’re happy to be the PBS equivalent to Trump’s tabloid fodder.
As news aired last week about Trump calling for protests over his impending indictment, Biden held an award ceremony honoring beloved Americans like Bruce Springsteen, Gladys Knight and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a mental health event featuring the stars of the earnest, feel-good show, “Ted Lasso.” His schedule in the days ahead of the indictment focused on policy announcements, and mourning the victims of a mass shooting in Nashville.
White House aides continue to believe that Trump is their most likely November 2024 matchup, assuming Biden follows through on his expected re-election bid. They also believe he would be the easiest Republican to beat. But most of all, the aides believe that Trump has already permanently lost a huge swatch of the independent and swing voters needed to win a general election. Trump may not grow tired of the spotlight. But a good chunk of voters has grown tired of him being in it.