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The legal downside to Trump’s very political trial strategy: From the Politics Desk

Plus, a pivotal moment for Biden, Ukraine and Congress, as a third House Republican signs onto the effort to oust Speaker Mike Johnson.
Donald Trump
Donald Trump on Friday in New York City.Curtis Means / Pool via Getty Images

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, senior legal correspondent Laura Jarrett explains how Donald Trump has already hobbled his legal team one week into his criminal trial. Plus, "Meet the Press" moderator Kristen Welker breaks down how foreign affairs has defined Joe Biden's presidency.

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How Trump has hobbled his legal team before the first witness is even called at his historic trial

By Laura Jarrett

For the better part of the last year, former President Donald Trump has sought to turn what would ordinarily amount to significant legal trouble into a political asset. 

Four indictments and one mugshot later, he’s successfully managed to dodge any dip among his supporters. Yet now that he stepped into a no-frills Manhattan courtroom this week for the start of his first criminal trial, the legal downside of his political strategy has come into sharp view.

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The rules of criminal procedure don’t change, no matter the defendant, even for a former president. And the courtesies and customs recognized between seasoned prosecutors and defense lawyers begin to break down, if not completely collapse. 

In a telling moment near the end of a long day in court Thursday, Trump’s lead attorney, Todd Blanche, asked if he could get the names of the first three witnesses the prosecution intends to call. That’s a routine and reasonable request. But the prosecutor, Joshua Steinglass, rebuffed him. 

Why? Because “Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses,” Steinglass said. “We’re not telling them who the witnesses are. I’m sorry.” 

Judge Juan Merchan, who has been the subject of his own wave of attacks from the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, then said: “I can’t fault the People for that.” 

The issue came up again late Friday afternoon, and the prosecution agreed to turn over the name of the first witness to the defense on Sunday. But the implication remains: Trump’s legal team is facing a distinct strategic disadvantage with less time to plan cross-examinations of the state’s witnesses. In other words, instead of being able to focus all weekend on prioritizing the expected testimony of just a few witnesses, all are up for grabs. 

And it’s all because Trump has been railing against multiple witnesses online, and has only ramped up his vitriol in recent days, notwithstanding a court order directing him not to do so.

This is the year the legal and political lives of Trump have been on a collision course. The only difference is, now the side that’s feeling the burn is his own team.

Trump trial latest: Jury selection completed during a tense day inside and outside the courtroom

By Adam Reiss, Lisa Rubin and Dareh Gregorian

Opening statements are set to begin next week in Trump’s criminal trial after the final members of the jury were seated Friday, following a dramatic day in which two prospective jurors broke down in tears, an appeals court judge rejected the former president’s request for a stay, and a man set himself on fire in front of the New York City courthouse.

“We’re going to have opening statements on Monday morning. This trial is starting,” Merchan said towards the end of the day, after successfully seating the remaining five alternate jurors that were needed.

The case — the first-ever criminal trial of a former president — will be heard by a panel of 12 jurors and a total of six alternates. It’s expected to last roughly six weeks.

The five alternates ultimately selected Friday include an unemployed married woman who’s into art and described herself as not political, an audio professional, a contract specialist, a clothing company executive and a construction company project manager. It took four days of jury selection to find the 18 jurors.

Around the same time the judge declared “we have our full panel” inside the courtroom in the early afternoon, a man set himself on fire outside the courthouse. A spokesperson for the NYPD said the man was in critical condition. He appears to have had pamphlets describing a conspiracy involving cryptocurrency that he threw around before setting himself ablaze, police said.

Read more from the fourth day of the Trump trial here →

Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden.
Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden in 2023 in Washington, D.C.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

A pivotal moment for Biden, Ukraine and Congress

By Kristen Welker

A pivotal moment has arrived for President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and House Speaker Mike Johnson. 

Can the GOP-led House pass the aid Ukraine says it needs in its two-year-old war against Russia? 

If it does, is it already too late to help? 

How much longer does Ukraine need assistance? 

And how much is riding on the outcome of the 2024 election, given Trump’s past opposition to this aid?  

These are among the questions that I plan to ask Zelenskyy on Sunday when I interview him on “Meet the Press.”

The congressional fight for Ukraine aid has also underscored an important point about the Biden presidency: It’s been largely defined — and unsettled — by events overseas. 

It began with the botched and deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Then there was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

And then came the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack in Israel, which has led to a six-month war.

Just in the past week, we saw Iran launch missile strikes and drones at Israel, while Israel responded Thursday night by carrying out what appears to be a limited response inside Iran.

“We don’t want to see this escalate. ... We’re not looking for a wider war with Iran. ... I think, you know, the coming hours and days will tell us a lot,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told me last Sunday

How foreign affairs has defined Biden’s presidency has carried over with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and with the current congressional drama over whether the U.S. will continue to provide Ukraine with the funding it needs.

All of it creates a fraught backdrop as the 2024 race heats up.

🗞️ Today’s top stories

  • 🌴 Trouble in paradise: A third House Republican — Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona — has signed onto an effort to oust Speaker Mike Johnson as a bipartisan group of lawmakers moved to tee up votes on four separate bills that include aid to Ukraine and Israel. Read more →
  • ⚖️ A portrait of Trump on trial: In his first full week on trial, Trump has been fundraising and furiously posting to social media as he looks to try to control the narrative. Read more →
  • 🧑‍🌾 Origin story revisited: The New York Times examines Pennsylvania Republican Senate hopeful David McCormick’s claims about his modest upbringing on a farm. Read more →
  • ☀️ Sunshine State of mind: Biden plans to deliver a speech next week in Florida denouncing the state’s six-week abortion ban as he continues to press Trump on the issue. Read more →
  • 🔴 Poll-watching army: Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee is pledging to deploy 100,000 volunteers and attorneys to monitor the vote in battleground states this fall. Read more →

That’s all from The Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at

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