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Trump wants to turn his indictment into reality TV. That could backfire.

Without cameras in the Miami courtroom, Trump is making a clear play to control the narrative.

If you caught only a tiny glimpse of the news Tuesday afternoon, you probably saw former President Donald Trump making a surprise — and seemingly triumphant — visit to a cafe in Miami. Trump followed up that fawning photo-op with a speech at a fundraising event for his presidential campaign, committing to courageously keep fighting his many persecutors. 

Of course, Trump was also federally arraigned Tuesday — the truly historic news of the day. But the video from Versailles played on loop, on some networks, because it was the only video available — the courthouse where Trump surrendered and pleaded not guilty allowed no cameras inside.  

And Trump knew exactly what he was doing. 

Lest anyone has forgotten, Trump is a former (and arguably current) reality television creator and star.

Without courthouse cameras, a policy which seems unlikely to change, and with a Justice Department that is abiding by traditional guidelines for criminal cases, Trump is making a clear play to control the narrative. And he’s putting his old reality TV production skills to effective use.

Lest anyone has forgotten, Trump is a former (and arguably current) reality television creator and star. And he values an aggressive public relations strategy.

There is no easy solution to this problem, unfortunately. On the one hand, cameras could help provide the American public with a greater understanding of the facts in perhaps the highest-stakes political trial in U.S. history. On the other, such a move could set a new precedent in courtrooms like Miami and create an even bigger circus.

But ultimately, Trump’s impromptu reality TV reboot cuts both ways.

First of all, and not to begrudge the power of public relations (a career I spent nearly 20 years in), a PR strategy isn’t a legal strategy. The bizarre arguments outside the courthouse made by Alina Habba, Trump’s lawyer and seemingly chief Miami mouthpiece, wouldn’t fly in an actual courtroom. And for all of Trump’s bluster, veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told Lawrence O'Donnell that Trump's Bedminster, New Jersey speech was a “straight-out confession” and confirmed that what Trump says on the campaign trail can be admissible in court.  

All this on literally the same day that a different court ruled Trump’s comments denigrating E. Jean Carroll at CNN’s town hall would be admissible in court. You might think such a ruling would give the twice-impeached former president pause.  

But no, that is simply not the Trump way. 

Second of all, quantity of public engagement doesn’t equal quality. Nor does it win elections. If it did, Trump would still be president. He dominated the media coverage back in 2020, to the point that prominent Democrats were wringing their hands about Joe Biden’s so-called pandemic basement strategy.

Indeed, my former White House colleagues see it differently. From their perspective, Biden won in part because he didn’t dive into the fray of the PR war in 2020. And their bet is that the American people are still smarter than that. The president’s own view is that one of the core promises he made in 2020 was that he would respect and protect the independence of the Justice Department. In keeping with that promise, his team is basically forbidden from commenting on the criminal indictment. (That’s no easy feat, as Biden’s joke about notes at a State Department event Tuesday made clear.)

There is some recent polling to suggest Team Biden’s bet on the public is right. A recent ABC News poll showed 61% of Americans found the charges either very or somewhat serious. And a recent CBS News poll found 69% of voters thought his hoarding of documents about military plans and nuclear systems was a national security risk.   

It’s also very early in the election cycle (pace yourself), and there are many ways for Biden to contrast his values and commitment to both the rule of law and the will of the people with Trump’s without commenting on the indictment.  

Clearly, there are plenty of issues we still need to iron out when it comes to the roles of transparency and media access in the unprecedented criminal trials of a former president and current presidential candidate.

But for now, don’t freak out about Trump’s finding new ways to dominate the headlines. He’s very good at sucking up all the oxygen, but outside of Hollywood, that talent could end up a curse.