ITL #580 Donald Trump on trial: his PR plan hits roadblocks as he becomes the first former U.S. president ever convicted of a crime

1 month ago

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What is the Trump PR strategy really all about? Attack, deflect, and delay. By Andrew Blum.



Now that Donald Trump has been convicted of 34 crimes in a New York courtroom, he is the first former U.S. president to ever become a felon. But his recent trial was only the start of a relentless PR campaign aimed at defeating legal and political enemies.

Trump is running for president again in 2024, and his platform continues to include issues that are relevant to Europe—support for Vladmir Putin and other autocrats; weakening of NATO; America first; weak support for Ukraine; etc. In the U.S., he continues to claim that the 2020 election was stolen, making threats of autocracy, and attacking the legal system.

Trump was indicted in the U.S. in 2023 on 91 counts in four criminal cases, and lost several major civil lawsuit verdicts. He has verbally attacked judges, prosecutors and anyone who tries to hold him accountable. And he turned his criminal trial and other indictments into campaign PR events and fundraisers.

In the 24 hours after the May 30th verdict, the Trump campaign claimed it raised US $52.8 million – all while he went on the attack with a repetitive and often incoherent PR campaign.

"This was a disgrace. This was a rigged trial by a conflicted judge who was corrupt," Trump said outside court. Trump has repeatedly lambasted the case and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, claiming the prosecution was politically motivated by Democrats to harm his candidacy for president with “election interference.”

Trump said he was "a very innocent man," adding, "This is long from over.”

Fascinated or appalled?

From across the pond, I wonder if Europeans are fascinated or appalled by Trump. Some of each, I would guess. Either way, he is a case study in PR and use of the media.

The U.S. legal system is modeled after the English system. It is not perfect but it is the best we have. Trump has taken the legal system, PR, and politics by storm, turning them upside down with non-stop incendiary comments and social media posts.


He is basing a large part of his campaign on attacking the legal system – except when it applies to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nation’s highest court which he stacked with conservative judges to do his bidding. He now wants to bypass the normal court system appeals process and have that court overturn the verdict.

Trump faces up to four years in prison on July 11 when he is due to be sentenced. His lawyers vow to appeal.

So, now what?
When the verdict was read, every U.S. news and cable TV network carried it as it happened. And then there was a flood of online and print coverage. Trump keeps feeding the media beast and it keeps covering him, the verdict, and the campaign.
https://x.com/NYDailyNews/status/1796366721231814995
https://x.com/jason_kint/status/1796504092816421076
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2024-06-10

But the other important PR issue going forward is what will President Joe Biden’s PR response be to the Trump rhetoric throughout the rest of the hotly-contested 2024 campaign?

Trump also held a press conference the day after the verdict where he rehashed his comments from the day before. By most press accounts, it was a rambling series of comments – much of them not about the verdict – and he took no press questions.

That was not a press conference -- PR 101 will tell you that. I can only imagine the nightmare that it must be to act as Trump’s PR person. His biggest PR problem is that he has one play in his PR crisis toolkit and he doesn’t change it.

Trump has also complained that he was still under the judge’s gag order and can’t discuss jurors, witnesses, prosecutors and others involved in the case, as well as their family members. Trump has already violated the order 10 times, being fined $10,000. Will he be sent to jail if he violates that again?

But what is the Trump PR strategy really all about? Attack, deflect, and delay.

Normally in crisis and litigation PR, you try to spin the media and the court of public opinion. You try to influence the jury pool, and use a Hail Mary on influencing the judge. But you don’t attack the case, the prosecutor, the legal system and the judge the way Trump has.

Trump was on trial in New York for paying US $130,000 in hush money to cover up an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. The Manhattan D.A. charged Trump with 34 felony counts for falsifying New York business records. He allegedly disguised reimbursements to attorney/fixer Michael Cohen as legal fees when Cohen had paid off Daniels under Trump’s orders. Trump allegedly paid Cohen back. Trump denied everything.

Trump also faces federal and state charges in Washington, D.C., and Georgia for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden, and other federal charges in Florida of mishandling and taking classified documents after leaving the White House in January 2021. Trump pleaded not guilty in all three cases, which he has managed to delay through PR and legal maneuvering.

His allies are also facing charges in several other states for allegedly concocting a fake election electors’ scheme to overturn the 2020 election.

Gavel-to-gavel coverage

In New York, no cameras were allowed in the courtroom so Trump turned the hallway and metal barricades into daily press conference staging areas where he blasted the D.A., the judge and everyone else he can blame. U.S. cable news stations ran gavel-to-gavel coverage without TV feeds from the courtroom, based on texts and emails from reporters on scene – with TV studio sets filled with anchors and talking heads.

It's Trump all the time? Is it too much?

So what is the media to do? Stop covering Trump? They can’t because their competition can’t, and won’t.

In four polls after the verdict, a majority of people queried said they approved of the verdict, and that Trump should end his presidential campaign.
Donald Trump Suffers Triple Polling Blow in 48 Hours After Guilty Verdict (msn.com)
Donald Trump Gets More Bad News From Fourth Post-Verdict Poll (msn.com)

(Trump honed his PR craft – if you will -- in the 1980s and 1990s, approaching New York City tabloid newspapers about his real estate business, even calling reporters using a fake name and masquerading as a PR guy to pitch a story about what else? Himself of course.)

So the prosecutors were out-PR-ed as Trump kept ragging on them. In one of their few press comments, D.A. Bragg held a press conference to announce the 2023 indictment. During the trial, his team did its talking in court, while complaining that Trump violated a gag order imposed by the judge. Bragg spoke after the verdict but declined to address whether he would seek a Trump prison sentence.

Trump, meanwhile, invited Republican politicians to sit in court to support him, followed by their making comments to the media outside court that legal analysts said could violate the gag order. One reporter even said he saw Trump making edits by hand of comments to be made outside by an ally.

Trump, who has courted and used the media, says the cases against him are “fake news” and a “witch hunt.” He has called the media the “Enemy of the State” and one of his top aides even invented “alternative facts.”

From the day he entered politics in 2015, when he criticized Mexican immigrants – “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” – Trump has made hate and lies into PR and political assets.


Never in U.S. history has a former president gobbled up so much of the news cycle of his successor. Part of this is the media’s fault; part of this is the fault of the slow-moving U.S justice system. President Biden is almost an afterthought some days – even after making headline news.

This media and legal circus isn’t new for Trump: he was investigated for 2016 election ties to Russia by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, survived two impeachment votes in the U.S. Senate, and recently lost several headline-making civil cases.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James won a civil fraud case against Trump and his company, the Trump Organization, and other defendants, in which a judge ordered them to pay the state more than US $450 million.

In another civil case, Trump lost two verdicts to journalist E. Jean Carroll, who successfully sued him for sexual assault and defaming her when she sued. Carroll then won a second defamation verdict of US $83.3 million in damages.

All of this takes place during a shift in the media – more online outlets each with a slice of the audience – and the demise of print. Trump has taken advantage of this by making his megaphones Twitter and Truth Social, and using right-wing media like Fox News to his advantage.

Violation of every PR rule

Trump has violated every rule of PR – making more than 30,000 lies or false or misleading claims when he was president, according to the Washington Post. But all he cares about is the adage “spell my name right.”

So what you may ask was Trump’s action best exemplifying his upending PR and political norms?

Using the New York trial as a political prop?

The Mexicans comment when he first announced for president?

His refusal to wear a mask during COVID?

Or the Washington, D.C. protests over the police killing of George Floyd, when Trump ordered them cleared out, stood in front of a church and held up a bible in a photo op? (He is now selling US $59.99 Trump-branded bibles.)

 

When it comes to political PR and image, it used to be kiss a baby, and say something positive. Now, thanks to Trump, it’s be as nasty as you can be.

A president is supposed to inspire confidence; Trump preaches hate. And in the instance of his criminal cases, his PR message is disdain for the legal system.

This is a real estate developer-turned-politician who survived the “grab them by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape surfacing in 2016 and somehow still was elected president.

Then came four years of flouting PR and political norms, the hush money trial, and three other criminal indictments. When push came to shove, he said he wanted to testify in the trial but then begged off.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 


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The Author

Andrew Blum

Andrew Blum is a U.S.-based PR consultant and media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. He has directed PR for professional services and financial services firms, NGOs, PR agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years, including PR in the criminal cases of former U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards, DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.   Twitter/X: @ajbcomms

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