In the Bronx, Donald Trump Goes to His Hateful, Happy Place

On Thursday, Donald Trump held a modestly attended campaign rally in the nation’s largest city. A few thousand people gathered in Crotona Park, in the Bronx, to cheer on the man who over the years has referred to New York City as a crime-infested “hell hole,” an unlivable “ghost town,” and a lawless community ruled by “roving bands of wild criminals.” In the crowd, there were Black men and women in Trump gear. Asian American families with young children. People in Trump gear waving Puerto Rican flags. People in Trump gear sitting in wheelchairs. Men in yarmulkes. Men in MAGA gear smoking weed. At least one woman in a “Lesbians for Trump” T-shirt. In 2020, eighty-three per cent of Bronx voters cast their ballots for Joe Biden. This still means that more than sixty-seven thousand people in the borough voted for Trump. “Like it or not, this is a rally,” Trump said, seemingly a little embarrassed by the unremarkable size of the crowd.

The rally was a deliberate distraction. At the other end of the 5 train’s line, in the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, Trump is still facing charges for falsifying business records related to checks he made out to his old lawyer Michael Cohen, allegedly as reimbursement for hush money that Cohen had paid to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels, in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Tuesday was the last day of testimony in the case, and the jury is expected to start their deliberations after the Memorial Day weekend. In the meantime, Trump put on a smile. “Would anybody like to hear ‘The Snake’?” he asked on Thursday evening, referring to a fable he often recites alongside his anti-immigrant rhetoric, in which an old woman takes in a frozen snake, nurses it back to health, and then is bitten and killed by it. The crowd in Crotona Park roared—a diverse New York City crowd cheering for xenophobia. “We’re going to do it right now, for the great people of the Bronx,” Trump said.

He barely mentioned the trial that has consumed many of his days for the past six weeks. At one point, he brought up Rubén Díaz, Sr., a conservative Democrat who previously served in the State Senate and on the City Council. In office, Díaz fought against gay marriage and abortion rights, and supported driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. On Thursday, he apologized to Trump on behalf of all Hispanic people for Judge Juan Merchan, who has been overseeing Trump’s hush-money trial and who was born in Bogotá, Colombia. “He’s being used to destroy you,” Díaz told Trump. Then Díaz, who once denounced the City Council as being “controlled by the homosexual community,” endorsed Trump. “This Democrat! This Black Puerto Rican with kinky hair! And broken English! Please accept my endorsement!” Díaz said. Trump made a little “O” of surprise with his mouth and grasped Díaz’s hand. “He’s a winner,” Trump told the crowd, who had broken out into a chant of “U.S.A.! U.SA.! U.S.A.!”

Otherwise, Trump stayed away from the news of the moment to play the hits. He told the crowd about the time he was called in to rebuild the Wollman ice rink, in Central Park, going into great detail about the materials used on the job. “The first thing I did was call the Montreal Canadiens hockey team,” he said. “They told me that you don’t want to use copper tubing and gas.” He also told a story about William Levitt, the real-estate developer and namesake of Levittown, New York. When Trump got to the end of the story and mentioned that Levitt died “penniless,” a young man standing near me shook his head and muttered, “What? Geez.” At the lectern, Trump promised the crowd that their lives and everything around them would be better if he were President, and threw in a couple local issues to boot, promising to repair the city’s subways and lower the cost of housing. “Lock her up! Lock her up!” people screamed. One of the bigger cheers came when Trump vowed that, if he were to get back to the White House, he would “immediately begin the largest criminal-deportation operation.”

Might Trump officially be a criminal by then? On Tuesday, his lawyers rested their defense case, after calling only two witnesses. One was a lawyer named Robert Costello, an old friend of Rudy Giuliani’s who, in 2018, prosecutors say, tried to keep Cohen in the Trump camp as Cohen weighed whether to plead guilty to federal tax and election-law crimes. In front of the jury, Costello got into an argument with the judge, a brazen display of contempt for the rule of law which unfolded within a few feet of the former President. “If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand,” Merchan told Costello, after clearing the courtroom. It was hard to know what Trump’s lawyers thought Costello’s effect would be on the members of the jury, besides maybe just freaking them out. In 2018, when he was dealing with Cohen, he sent the President’s soon-to-be ex-lawyer an e-mail saying, “Sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places.”

One of the many accommodations that Merchan has made for Trump during the trial is to allow for a makeshift press area outside the courtroom. Every day since the trial began, in April, a cluster of photographers, videographers, and reporters have gathered in a little barricaded pen outside Courtroom No. 1530. Trump has the option of talking to these journalists when he grumbles by. Sometimes, he has simply flashed a thumbs-up. Once or twice each day, he has stopped to grumble more loudly. “I’m gagged,” Trump said on Tuesday. “I’m not allowed to say what I’d like to really say.” (That day, he’d officially ruled out testifying on his own behalf, which he’d previously said he intended to do.) Before the trial began, Merchan issued a gag order prohibiting Trump from speaking publicly about witnesses or jurors, and Trump has been testing the boundaries of that order ever since. Merchan has found Trump in contempt, and ordered him to pay ten separate thousand-dollar fines for statements violating the gag order—a paltry sum for Trump, and one his campaign quickly used as fund-raising bait. “A Democrat judge JUST HELD ME IN CONTEMPT OF COURT!” read an e-mail soliciting donations from supporters in April. “They think they can BLEED ME DRY and SHUT ME UP, but I’ll NEVER stop fighting for YOU.”

Earlier this year, after Trump was found liable for defamation and sexual abuse in a civil trial brought against him by the journalist E. Jean Carroll, he began acting out in court. “I would love it,” he told a judge who threatened to have him removed from one proceeding. On Tuesday, in the courtroom hallway, he reached for another old standby. “The judge hates Donald Trump,” he said, of Merchan. “Just take a look. Take a look at him. Take a look at where he comes from.” In the spring of 2016, Trump stoked weeks of controversy when he said that the “Mexican heritage” of a federal judge assigned to preside over civil lawsuits alleging that Trump University had committed fraud represented “an absolute conflict.” (The case was settled in 2018.) Back then, many people didn’t quite believe that Trump could be elected President. Now, with his reëlection entirely plausible, people barely blink when he denounces a judge’s South American origins in Manhattan one day, and grasps the hand of a “Black Puerto Rican with kinky hair” in the Bronx two days later.

At the Thursday-evening rally, Trump tried to act as if everything were normal. Some in the crowd had never heard of the case against their hero, and others had heard on the news or online that the District Attorney’s case was “falling apart.” None of the attendees had been in the courtroom on the days when the jury was shown the reimbursement checks that Trump had signed, in Sharpie, for Cohen. In the Bronx, the ex-President delivered his bombastic, hateful, meandering stump speech. In Manhattan, he may soon become a convicted felon. ♦

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