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Twisted truths and a fundraising boost: How Trump tried to control his first week in court

On the first day of the trial, Trump's campaign raised $1.6 million in small-dollar donations, a campaign official told NBC News.
Donald Trump speaks to the media before attending jury selection
Donald Trump before jury selection on the second day of his trial at Manhattan criminal court on Tuesday. Curtis Means / Getty Images pool

Donald Trump emerged from a Manhattan courtroom Monday ready for a fight.

After day one of a trial that has Trump facing 34 counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments to a porn star, the former president stood in front of reporters ready to unleash a grievance-laced tirade that, at times, did not totally reflect reality but guaranteed he would continue to dominate the headlines even from court.

His immediate focus was Judge Juan Merchan’s decision to not yet rule on whether Trump can attend his son Barron’s May 17 high school graduation. Merchan did not say Trump could not go, but rather he was not yet ready to rule on the matter. Specifics aside, however, it gave Trump just enough to paint the picture for his supporters of a biased judge blocking a loving father from seeing his son’s graduation.

“My son is graduating high school, and it looks like the judge will not let me go to the graduation,” Trump told the assembled group of reporters.

It’s emblematic of how Trump has tried to control the narrative — an instinct that has defined his political career — even while stuck in a camera-less Manhattan courtroom. The judge has ordered Trump to attend court hearings in person, so it’s a predicament he will find himself in at least four days a week for the foreseeable future as President Joe Biden continues to run a more traditional presidential campaign. 

The false claim a judge was not allowing him to attend his son’s graduation spread like wildfire in the conservative ecosystem, a conflagration helped by some of his top supporters with huge followings. Kari Lake called Merchan “heartless & cruel.” Piers Morgan used a New York Post column to call the-decision-that-was-not “disgusting.” Donald Trump Jr. called it “pure evil.”

For millions of Trump supporters, the half-truth became the truth and a cause celebre for those eagerly looking to maintain the belief that the entire legal fight is an attempt by Democrats to get Trump locked up.

Those sorts of distortions and fights about nearly every aspect of the trial dominated the first week, which focused on jury selection. 

It was often reality versus Trump’s version of it.

There were reports Trump may have fallen asleep in court, where cameras are not allowed in these types of cases. He responded forcefully on Truth Social that “I was PRAYING not sleeping!!!”

Trump had a misunderstanding about the jury selection process. It led him to post on Truth Social that the process is another example of “ELECTION INTERFERENCE!

And Trump has broadly used a torrent of Truth Social posts and media interviews to paint a picture of both Merchan and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as biased and out to get him, a sentiment that has been taken as gospel and amplified by conservative media.

In fundraising text messages, Trump has also told supporters that he left the courtroom, which at no point during the week happened except during scheduled court recesses or when court was over for the day.

“I JUST STORMED OUT OF COURT!” read a fundraising text message from Trump’s campaign. “They think I’m finished, but I’LL NEVER SURRENDER!”

Trump also tried to raise political cash off the claim that he has been blocked from attending Barron’s graduation.


“Heartless thugs,” it continued.

The trial-focused fundraising efforts have been breaking through the noise.

On the first day of trial, Trump's campaign raised $1.6 million in small-dollar donations, a campaign official told NBC News. Trump raised that much online on only three days in the first three months of 2024, according to a recent campaign finance filing from WinRed, the Trump campaign's online donation platform. Each of those three days came toward the end of March.

"Crooked Joe Biden and the Democrat's entire strategy to defeat President Trump is to confine him to a courtroom and unconstitutionally silence him throughout this sham Biden trial," said Trump spokesperson Karoline Leavitt. "Polling shows the American people see right through the Stalinist tactics employed by Crooked Joe and his allies."

"President Trump and his team will continue fighting for truth in the courtroom, while working to earn votes on the campaign trail," she added.

Much of the nation’s attention is focused on the historic nature of an ex-president on trial, a saturation that has helped Trump continue his unmatched ability to get and retain attention regardless of the specific situation — which, in this case, is being stuck in court facing unflattering revelations about his personal life and accusations about trying to hide the information to get elected.

“I don’t think any of it matters. He totally rewrote the rules,” said a longtime Republican operative granted anonymity to speak freely about Trump’s week-one performance. “There are between 75-80 million people who will vote for him because he is a scrappy fighter. Working class folks see him as a billionaire bubba.”

The entire episode sets up a split screen of a former president mired in legal fights and stuck in court and an incumbent president checking all the boxes of what would be considered a traditional presidential campaign. Biden has a significant fundraising advantage and continues to hold in person campaign rallies, most recently a swing through Pennsylvania, including events in his hometown of Scranton, where he attacked Trump on a range of issues — but noticeably did not mention his legal woes. Biden's campaign has previously said it would avoid directly taking shots at Trump's legal problems to try and avoid the perception of a weaponized Justice Department.

Beyond fundraising text messages, Trump’s political operation has continued to work in the background. On Wednesday — the trial’s off day — Trump had dinner with Polish President Andrzej Duda at Trump Tower in New York, and on Saturday, he is set to hold a rally in North Carolina, a key swing state.

Trump has also installed top allies to lead the Republican National Committee, which has generally been focused on the more basic types of political blocking-and-tackling as the presidential nominee is likely to be stuck in courtrooms for most of the 2024 election cycle. Including the current trial, Trump faces four separate criminal indictments and a handful of civil lawsuits, some of which will continue to play out through November. 

"We are getting a lot of data being shared with us to help us register and engage voters," an RNC member said.

Trump has also used post-trial campaign stops to attract attention, including a Tuesday visit to a New York bodega. Trump at times tried to use the stop to focus on the rising cost of consumer goods and crime, which have been two policy themes of his presidential campaign, but the focus inevitably turned to his trial.

Trump was asked what he thought about the seven jurors who had been selected as of Wednesday — the full 12-member jury was chosen Thursday — and he was blunt that the outcome would drive his assessment.

“I’ll let you know in about two months,” Trump said of the trial’s likely timeline.