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The Late-Night Laughs From Donald Trump’s Trial
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The Late-Night Laughs From Donald Trump’s Trial

What TV comedians communicate about average Americans’ takeaways from court proceedings.

Welcome back to The Collision! In today’s main item, we pivot away from the substance of Donald Trump’s criminal trial to explore what may actually matter more: how regular Americans, through the lens of late-night comedy, are digesting all the developments in the Manhattan courtroom.

The Docket

  • The big news out of Manhattan this week came on Tuesday, when Judge Juan Merchan found the former president in contempt of court for violating a gag order. Merchan had ordered Trump to refrain from “making or directing others to make” public statements about witnesses, other attorneys or staff for the opposing counsel, family members of opposing counsel or the court, or sitting or potential jurors. After prosecutors filed a motion documenting 10 violations, all from either Trump’s campaign website or posts from his Truth Social media account, Merchan held a hearing last week to determine the facts. The judge determined Trump had violated the gag order nine times and ordered him to pay $1,000 per violation in fines.
  • In his order, Merchan left open the possibility that further violations of the order would result in more fines and could include jail time “if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances.” Trump, meanwhile, has continued to publicly complain about the gag order itself and Merchan. Here’s a post from his Truth Social account Thursday morning: “WE CANNOT LET THIS RADICAL LEFT, CORRUPT AND HIGHLY CONFLICTED NEW YORK DEMOCRAT JUDGE INTERFERE WITH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 2024 — THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY. THE USA IS TRULY A NATION IN DECLINE! REMOVE THE UNCONSTITUTIONAL GAG ORDER.”
  • Testimony for the prosecution’s case continued this week, with Stormy Daniels attorney Keith Davidson taking the stand Tuesday. Davidson, who also represented another woman who claimed to have had sex with Trump, Karen McDougal, has been testifying about the nature of the “catch and kill” agreement between the National Enquirer’s parent company and Trump. On Thursday, Davidson’s testimony continued where it left off Tuesday, providing details on the specific negotiation for the payment of hush money to Daniels that is at the heart of the prosecution’s case.
  • For a fairly original defense of the prosecution of Trump in the hush-money trial, be sure to read Rebecca Roiphe, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, in a New York Times op-ed this week. “It would hardly make for a dramatic opening statement or cable news sound bite, but the case is about preventing wealthy people from using their businesses to commit crimes and hide from accountability,” Roiphe writes. “Manhattan prosecutors have long considered it their province to ensure the integrity of the financial markets. As Robert Morgenthau, a former Manhattan district attorney, liked to say, ‘You cannot prosecute crime in the streets without prosecuting crime in the suites.’”
  • Meanwhile, Hunter Biden is threatening to sue Fox News for defamation and violating “revenge porn” laws in its coverage of the president’s son, including the publication of nude photos that Biden’s team claim were obtained illegally from his laptop. In response, Fox News preemptively pulled down a six-part series from its streaming service, Fox Nation, that depicted a mock trial for Biden.
Jimmy Kimmel (Photo by 2022 Media Access Awards Presented By Easterseals/Getty Images for Easterseals)
Jimmy Kimmel (Photo by 2022 Media Access Awards Presented By Easterseals/Getty Images for Easterseals)

What really matters in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial in Manhattan? If we’re talking about the legal outcome, it’s important to weigh the strengths of both sides’ competing arguments; their performances in convincing the jury to accept their interpretation of the facts; the presentation of new evidence; even the conduct of the prosecution, defense, judge, and jury inside the courtroom.

But this is a criminal trial involving the former president—a leading candidate in this fall’s November election. The political outcome of this trial (and of the other three criminal indictments, though none have great chances of going to trial this year) may matter just as much. That means evaluating how this trial is being consumed not by legal eagles following each moment closely nor by politics obsessives watching cable news or regularly reading august publications such as The Dispatch—but by regular Americans.

So what is actually breaking through to the broader culture about the Trump trial? Answering that question is not straightforward in a splintered culture. Americans consume news and entertainment from various platforms, from network and cable television to streaming services to social media. We no longer live in the world in which tens of millions of adults all watch the Tonight Show monologue for a daily comedic take on the news of the day, or where a political sketch on Saturday Night Live becomes so well known that people believe the real politician said the satirical line. (Sometimes, even the politician himself believes it!)

Still, we can learn a bit about what parts of Trump’s trial are surfacing. Spoiler alert: Very little of it is on the substance of the case.

On the network late-night shows, hosts have zeroed in on a handful of topics. By far the most popular is the reporting from inside the Manhattan courtroom that Trump has fallen asleep at points during the trial. On April 15, the day the trial began, Jimmy Kimmel cracked that “If Biden is Sleepy Joe, I guess that makes you Doze-o the Clown.” On the same day, Stephen Colbert mentioned that reporting in his monologue and mimicked Trump waking up from a dream at the defense table. Seth Meyers got laughs just from showing a courtroom sketch artist’s depiction of a snoozing Trump, and this week he gently mocked a reporter who had observed the former president closing his eyes in court and said that he could have been “meditating.”

“He wasn’t f—ing meditating!” Meyers said with a laugh.

More material for jokes are Trump’s remarks about the cold temperature inside the courtroom and the lack of available water. “Apparently former President Trump has been complaining during his hush-money trial that the courtroom is too cold,” Tonight Show  host Jimmy Fallon said in a recent monologue. “Then Stormy Daniels was like ‘Your honor, I’ve heard that excuse before.’” On another episode, Fallon mentioned the temperature again with a series of one-liners: “Trump was so cold, he came this close to hugging Eric for warmth.” 

The gag order, and in particular Trump’s violations of it and punishment, are also fodder for the late-night hosts. On the day of Merchan’s hearing about Trump violating the order, Kimmel spent a chunk of time in his monologue on the subject, including noting that Trump posted online a disparaging statement about the judge on the same day. “He violated the gag order during a hearing about whether he violated the gag order!” Kimmel said. Fallon, meanwhile, broke out his own Trump impersonation after mentioning Merchan had identified nine violations of the gag order in his ruling. “Trump was like, ‘But I get the 10th one free, right?’” Fallon said.

Elsewhere in late night comedy: Saturday Night Live, of course, is known for capturing the political zeitgeist election after election. But SNL has not aired a new show since the trial began, with the next new episode coming this weekend. Nothing captures the mood in the SNL writers’ room better than the mid-show news segment, Weekend Update, so expect to hear plenty of retreads of the aforementioned areas on this Saturday’s show: Trump sleeps, Trump complains, and Trump can’t tamp down the criticisms of the judge, prosecution, and jury. 

In the meantime, one of the Weekend Update co-anchors, Colin Jost, appeared as the comedic entertainment at last weekend’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, though his act received tepid applause from the black-tie crowd. Here’s a representative joke from Jost, taking a page from the talk-show hosts’ playbook: “It’s after 10 p.m. ‘Sleepy Joe’ is still awake while Donald Trump has spent the past week falling asleep in court every morning, though Fox News said he was just being anti-woke.” (Trump, meanwhile, offered his review of Jost’s performance: “Colin Jost BOMBED, and Crooked Joe was an absolute disaster! Doesn’t get much worse than this!”)

Heading over to premium cable, HBO hosts John Oliver and Bill Maher have had less to say about Trump in general, let alone the trial. Oliver has previously said he wants to” protect at least the main body of our show for the majority of the year from the horse-race elements of the election.” Oliver hasn’t given Trump a total pass, but his commentary on Trump’s legal issues has been limited. He’s said he doesn’t think much of Trump’s immunity arguments, wondering “can a former president be criminally prosecuted for actions taken while in office?” before rapidly adding, “It’s an interesting question and real quick: Yes.”

Maher, on the other hand, has said he wants to cover Trump differently. “What I have decided to do is not preemptively give up my nervous system to Donald Trump like I did last time, or maybe the last two times,” he said. 

But last month Maher did give his audience a list of fictional excuses potential jurors used to get out of jury duty in the Manhattan trial. “It’s a conflict of interest. I also sell my own Bibles,” “I used to be a hooker in Moscow, and Trump peed on me,” “I’m already on another Trump jury,” “I’m still grieving the death of O.J. Simpson,” “If Trump goes to jail, I don’t get deported, right?” and “Dad, it’s me Tiffany.”

And then there’s the return of Jon Stewart to his old Comedy Central program, the Daily Show. Stewart has reserved most of his fire for the media over its coverage of the trial:

“Look, at some point in this trial, something important and revelatory is going to happen, but none of us are going to notice because of the hours spent on his speculative facial tics. If the media tries to make us feel like the most mundane [expletive] is earth-shattering, we won’t believe you when it’s really interesting. It’s your classic ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf Blitzer.’”

By way of example, he suggests that perhaps the daily footage of Trump heading to court isn’t very newsworthy. “Seriously, are we going to follow this guy to court every [expletive] day,” Stewart asked recently. “Are you trying to make this O.J.? It’s not a chase—he’s commuting.” 

And he’s had some advice for reporters covering the trial. 

“Look, we’ve got a long ways to go here. It’s the first day of the first of his 438 trials to come. Pace yourselves, and if you’re bored, you can always start planning how you’re going to [expletive] up covering his next trial and the sober mea culpa you’ll deliver during his next term as president.”

But even Stewart can’t resist the light stuff about Trump sleeping during the trial: “As he should. I mean, he’s been up since 2 a.m. rage tweeting. He needs his anger sleep.”

One More Thing

So, will the only cultural imprint from Trump’s criminal trial be that the former president gets sleepy in court? Of course the substance of the trial matters, even if the day-to-day coverage seems dominated by trivia like this. The trial’s eventual conclusion and verdict will go a long way in shaping how normal Americans view the charges. 

If Trump is acquitted by a jury of his peers, in liberal Manhattan no less, then all the gags from late-night comics will be as ephemeral as the other jokes they make regularly about the news of the day. And if Trump is convicted, even as Republicans cry foul, what may stick most in swing voters’ minds is that the former president is a felon. Yet even that label, polls suggest, won’t sink his better-than-good chances at winning the election this fall. As the write-up of a recent CNN poll explains:

a rising share of Americans say the charges in the ongoing trial – related to allegedly falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments to an adult film actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election – are irrelevant to his fitness for the presidency even if true (45% say so now compared with 39% last summer, before he became the presumptive Republican nominee for president).

Are you laughing yet?

Verbatim

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass: Now, did the settlement use pseudonyms?

Stormy Daniels attorney Keith Davidson: Yes.

Steinglass: What was Stormy Daniels’ pseudonym?

Davidson: “Peggy Peterson.”

Steinglass: What was Donald Trump’s pseudonym?

Davidson: I think it was “David Dennison.”

Steinglass: Who came up with those pseudonyms?

Davidson: I did.

Steinglass: How?

Davidson: I used PP because she was the plaintiff, and DD because he was the defendant .

Steinglass: Is David Dennison a real person?

Davidson: He was on my high school hockey team.

(Whereupon, people laugh.)

Steinglass: How does he feel about you now?

Davidson: He’s very upset.

(Whereupon, people laugh.)

—from direct questioning by the prosecution in Donald Trump’s Manhattan hush-money trial, April 30, 2024

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.