OPINION - Donald Trump is too scared to speak in his own defence, but that's not slowing him down

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Donald Trump has complained nonstop for weeks about being gagged. The hush money trial, involving an alleged pay-off to porn star Stormy Daniels, has been monstrously unfair, he wailed repeatedly outside court. According to his own version of events, his prosecution was a horrible witch hunt, built on lies, because America’s self-described “favourite” president never slept with Daniels in the first place, let alone tried to subvert the course of the 2016 election by paying $130,000 for her silence.

So what did the bombastic Trump do when offered the chance to defend himself in court? He kept his mouth firmly zipped. In effect he gagged himself, despite vowing, “Yeah, I would testify, absolutely,” at a press conference in Florida before the start of the trial. “I’m testifying. I tell the truth,” he asserted, knowing full well he was unlikely to take the stand. “I mean, all I can do is tell the truth, and the truth is there is no case.” The fact that his lawyers were terrified he would make an appalling witness did not make his decision to remain silent any less craven.

Was he afraid of perjuring himself? We can only speculate, but Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, hit a nerve when he said, “As far as I know you don’t pay someone $130,000 not to have sex with you.” Imagine how much more convincing Trump would have been to jurors had he felt able to look them in the eye and say calmly, “I never slept with Daniels. I paid my lawyer Michael Cohen purely for legal services, and I only wanted to keep her sordid lies about sex from embarrassing my wife Melania.” But he was never going to risk taking the stand.

The fact that his lawyers were terrified he would make an appalling witness did not make his decision to remain silent any less craven

You would think it would result in the collapse of the stout party. Far from it. Americans are so used to Trump bloviating that few people were affronted by his about-turn. He is always sounding off about something or other. It has become almost like white noise. In any case, he still enjoys the presumption of innocence. The jury will not reach a verdict until next week and who knows what they will decide. If Trump is found guilty, he will appeal. If there is a hung jury, he will count it as a victory. If he walks free, he will be cockahoop and Joe Biden’s campaign will be seriously affected.

At least Trump can’t keep pretending he was forced to stay silent. But the frequent disconnect between his words and deeds can lead voters to believe he is not as dangerous as he seems. He likes nothing better than to leave people guessing as to his real intentions.

You get the feeling the Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, whose biopic The Apprentice is currently the toast of Cannes, was relying on Trump’s lack of seriousness when he decided to include the alleged rape of his first wife, Ivana, in his origin story about the young property mogul.

Ivana — who lies buried on a Trump golf course in New Jersey and can no longer speak for herself — had claimed in 1990 divorce papers that she had been raped by Trump but later retracted the allegation.

At a press conference in the south of France yesterday, Abbasi appeared unbothered by the threat of legal action. “Everybody talks about [Trump] suing a lot of people. They don’t talk about his success rate though,” he said to ripples of laughter from approving festival goers.

Similarly, Biden may be tempted to taunt Trump for being all mouth but no trousers when they square up against each other in debate next month — in contrast to Biden’s own perceived record of achievement. The first presidential debate, hosted by CNN, is scheduled for June 27, earlier than usual in the electoral cycle. In his opening gambit on YouTube, Biden adopted a mocking tone towards his rival. “Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020,” he scoffed. “Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal … I hear you’re free on Wednesdays” (a reference to Trump’s only day off from court).

But it is a gamble by the 81-year-old president, who is struggling to gain traction against Trump in the key battleground states. Rushing headlong into a one-on-one contest is an attempt to change the narrative about his own incapacity and turn the spotlight on Trump’s failings. Rather late in the day, the Democrats have woken up to the fact that they over-invested in lawfare against their opponent, rather than campaigning on the issues. But belittling Trump may not be the answer to their problems. Trump is far better at mockery than they are and is already demanding a “drug test” for Biden, complaining he is bound to be “jacked up” for the contest. “I don’t want him coming in … high as a kite,” Trump said.

Some conspiracy theorists are convinced an early debate will give the Democrats the chance to dump Biden at their convention in August if he performs badly. That is not going to happen (unless he has a major health scare). Despite accusations of being in denial about his election prospects, Biden still has some reasons for feeling zen, not least because Democratic candidates for the Senate in swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin are heavily outpolling their Maga Republican rivals by up to five points or more.

Biden’s June debate against Trump is a gamble — he is struggling in key states

These voters may “come home” to Biden in the final stretch of the race, but it would be complacent for the Democrats to rely on this. It may be that a majority of people in these states genuinely prefer Trump to Biden and are not frightened by the thought of his return to power.

When Trump promises mass deportations of up to 11 million undocumented immigrants and vows to house them in detention camps to speed up the process, does he mean what he says? Will he genuinely purge thousands of government employees and install his own lackeys in every department? Are these boasts about his direction of travel or evidence of fully planned, deliverable policies that will tilt America to the hard Right for generations to come? With Trump, it is not always easy to tell.

From describing his political enemies as “vermin” to accusing illegal immigrants of “poisoning the blood of the country”, Trump has often flirted with the language of the far Right. In a rare act of contrition, the Trump campaign yesterday deleted a post on Truth Social, which superimposed headlines about America’s shining future under Trump on newsprint about a “unified Reich” which echoed Nazi terms, such as “Peace Through Strength”.

It was the sort of mishap that can only happen to a campaign steeped in quasi-fascist memes. But it also can be brushed off with a playful nod and a wink.

The Stormy Daniels trial revealed Trump to be full of hot air. If he wins the election, we cannot be sure which Trump will take power.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting