Trump, Venting About Lawyer in His Criminal Trial, Seeks More Aggression (2024)

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Todd Blanche upended his career to represent Donald J. Trump and has been the former president’s favorite. But Mr. Trump has made him a focus of his episodic wrath.

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Trump, Venting About Lawyer in His Criminal Trial, Seeks More Aggression (1)

By Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan

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Follow our live coverage of Trump’s hush money trial in Manhattan.

Donald J. Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial had barely begun when he started to turn his anger toward his lead lawyer, Todd Blanche.

Although Mr. Blanche has been Mr. Trump’s favorite lawyer for some time, behind closed doors and in phone calls, the former president has complained repeatedly about him in recent weeks, according to four people familiar with the situation.

He has griped that Mr. Blanche, a former federal prosecutor and veteran litigator, has not been following his instructions closely, and has been insufficiently aggressive. Mr. Trump wants him to attack witnesses, attack what the former president sees as a hostile jury pool, and attack the judge, Juan M. Merchan.

Mr. Trump, who often complains about legal fees and sometimes refuses to pay them, has also wondered aloud why his lawyers cost so much, according to the people, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

Nearly every lawyer who has ever represented Mr. Trump has spent time in the blast zone. But as he enters the third week of his first criminal trial — one that not only threatens his campaign to become president again, but also could send him to prison — the question of whether his lawyers can win enough leeway from his desires has never loomed larger.

Mr. Trump views himself as his own best legal strategist. Since becoming president, he has cast about for lawyers who would do exactly what he wanted, including helping him stay in office after he lost the 2020 election. He has vented to others that he does not have “a Roy Cohn,” a reference to his notoriously ruthless former lawyer. Mr. Cohn, who represented Mr. Trump in his formative business years, was repeatedly indicted and ultimately disbarred.

Jason Miller, a Trump campaign senior adviser, said Monday that the former president and his team were focused entirely on fighting a “ridiculous” case and that “anonymous comments from people who aren’t in the room are just that.” He added: “I would be highly skeptical of any gossip or hearsay surrounding this case.”

Alina Habba, a legal spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, described Mr. Blanche as a “crucial part” of the team. Mr. Blanche declined to comment for this article.

In the Manhattan trial, which resumes Tuesday, Mr. Trump faces 34 felony charges after prosecutors accused him of faking business records to conceal a hush-money payment to a p*rn star in 2016. He faces three other prosecutions, but this will most likely be the only trial before the November election.

Mr. Blanche reworked his career to take on Mr. Trump as a client, and also represents the former president in two of the three other criminal indictments. Friends say he truly believes that Mr. Trump should not have been charged in Manhattan.

It has become routine over the last year for Mr. Trump to blast his legal team moments before heading to the courthouse, or once inside.

So far at least, Mr. Trump — who erupted repeatedly during two civil trials in the past six months — has been respectful of Mr. Blanche’s strategy while jurors are present. And Mr. Blanche has been doing things that appear to reflect his client’s desires. For instance, in his opening statement, Mr. Blanche made a point of mentioning that Mr. Trump had built a “very large, successful company.”

If Mr. Blanche can persuade at least one juror to have reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, the trial would end in a hung jury, which Mr. Trump would count as a victory.

But Mr. Blanche’s representation of a client who tests the bounds of rules and laws has caused friction with Justice Merchan.

The judge last week warned Mr. Blanche that he was “losing all credibility” by claiming that Mr. Trump was entitled, as a political candidate, to attack people involved in the trial despite a gag order meant to bar him from denouncing witnesses and others.

Mr. Blanche’s friends and defenders say that he has an unsolvable client management problem. If he were to do exactly what Mr. Trump wanted, they say, he would almost certainly be disciplined by the judge and would perhaps undermine his client’s defense.

Elie Honig, a former prosecutor who worked with Mr. Blanche at the Southern District of New York, said that it was “not always the optimal defense strategy at trial to attack full-bore every minute of every hour of every day,” adding, “You will exhaust the jury and, more importantly, you’ll compromise your credibility.”

“The best defense lawyers know that you pick your battles; you pick the most important battles,” Mr. Honig said.

Whether Mr. Trump’s anger will last remains to be seen. There have been many such interactions with lawyers in the past several years: during a second impeachment trial once he was out of office, five criminal investigations of him or his company and three civil trials. His frustration tends to come in waves.

As president, he reserved some of his harshest verbal abuse for his government lawyers. The invective he aimed his White House counsels, Donald F. McGahn II and Pat A. Cipollone, was often so severe that staff members said they had an urge to leave the room.

But Mr. Blanche has had a special status. People close to Mr. Trump have said he likes Mr. Blanche, although they acknowledge that the warmth will probably cool if there is a guilty verdict.

Mr. Trump measures all lawyers against the two he prized most. One was Mr. Cohn, the mentor who gave him access to Manhattan elites and taught him how to use the court system as a blunt instrument. The other was Jay Goldberg, who before he died in 2022 handled various issues for Mr. Trump, including his divorce from his first wife.

“Jay was a fantastic lawyer,” Mr. Trump told a reporter in 2021. “We had some great results. I’m not finding people like this. Jay Goldberg, you know, he was a great Harvard student. But he was great on his feet.”

Mr. Trump described Mr. Cohn, who died in 1986, as “very controversial, but very brilliant.” He recalled: “He did a great job for me. He was actually a very loyal guy. If he was with you, he was a very loyal guy.”

Both Mr. Cohn and Mr. Goldberg also represented mobsters, and both were known for showmanship.

Mr. Cohn wowed Mr. Trump after the Justice Department filed a housing discrimination suit against him and his father in 1973. Mr. Cohn accused the federal government of “Gestapo-like tactics.” He delayed the case for months, settling it with a consent decree in 1975. Mr. Trump claimed victory.

To his biographer Timothy L. O’Brien, Mr. Trump was blunt about what he most admired about Mr. Cohn.

“He brutalized for you,” Mr. Trump said.

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent reporting on the 2024 presidential campaign, down ballot races across the country and the investigations into former President Donald J. Trump. More about Maggie Haberman

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter covering the 2024 presidential election and Donald Trump’s campaign. More about Jonathan Swan

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Trump, Venting About Lawyer in His Criminal Trial, Seeks More Aggression (2024)

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